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THEATER : REVIEW : VALLEY WEEKEND : ‘Diary of a Madman’ Almost Beats Odds at Black Whole : Actor-director Fareed Al-Oboudi takes on Gogol’s difficult play at the new Van Nuys space and nearly solves the problems presented by the text.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

For those who believe that bureaucracy is the path of madness, their patron saint must be Nikolai Gogol. A good argument can be made that the 19th-century Russian writer invented the absurdist style taken up by later stage satirists, and that only Chekhov was a peer as a master playwright and fiction writer.

Given all that, Gogol’s “Diary of a Madman” doesn’t show him off at his best. (The ones that do are his great play “The Inspector General” and his even greater novel, “Dead Souls.”) This short story-as-diary works best on the page, and can be a drag on the stage. Though it contains some of “Inspector’s” hermetically sealed absurdism and “Dead Souls’ ” satire on the Russian style of bureaucracy, it can also be suffocating if read the wrong way.

There’s almost no way to read it the right way for the stage, though actor-director-adapter Fareed Al-Oboudi does almost everything to buck the odds. He is clearly a classically trained actor with a fine vocal instrument and a strong physical presence that’s enough to fill the starkly white cubicle stage of the curiously named Black Whole Theatre, a new space in Van Nuys.

The cubicle, though, is a little too stark in the beginning, suggesting a mad world before St. Petersburg bureaucrat Poprishchin actually goes mad. That is just one of the built-in problems of adapting the story for the stage, which Al-Oboudi has taken from Anna S. Bekoeva’s translation.

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The other key problem is almost insoluble, because what Gogol wrote was a kind of anti-story, stripped of any sense of traditional character grounding, change or motivation. Poprishchin’s course is a straight line--down.

The reader can fill this in with anything he or she cares to; the actor has to fill it in with something humanizing, something that doesn’t come off as silly to an audience. Al-Oboudi’s mop-top wig doesn’t lessen the silliness, looking like a leftover from one of the British Invasion bands.

That isn’t a big problem, however, since Al-Oboudi’s sheer forcefulness commands attention. Once we’ve settled in, his face and voice provide hints of a little man confused by the big world and unable to touch the women he loves from afar. But even these actor touches become overwhelmed by a text as obsessively driven as the character, in which the only surprises are how loony he can go.

Actually, looniness isn’t the kind of madness you sense in the story. It’s more of a shocking, tragic, macabre collapse. Al-Oboudi leans toward the loony, though, and sometimes pushes the tone perilously close to comedy. (The audience was in stitches at points.)

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Still, the final blurtings of a completely lost man make for some chilling theater, powerfully lit by C. Wendell Cox. Another visual element, slides illustrating various St. Petersburg locales (by Al-Oboudi) is an interesting but distracting and futile attempt to “open up” a tale that defines the closed mind.

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DETAILS

* WHAT: “Diary of a Madman.”

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* WHERE: Black Whole Theatre, 5920 Van Nuys Blvd., Van Nuys.

* WHEN: Fridays-Saturdays, 8 p.m., ends Dec. 16.

* HOW MUCH: $8.

* CALL: (310) 679-6727.

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