Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville may seem obvious titans of American letters today, but in the 1850s, one had resorted to a desk job, and the other was on the verge of suicide. Hawthorne had become history’s most overqualified “as told to” hack, having written a biography of school chum President Franklin Pierce, who reciprocated by appointing him American consul to Liverpool. Melville, Hawthorne’s young acolyte, had at age 30 already authored the great American novel, but the critics deemed Moby Dick insane and vulgar. Distraught, he set off on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, on the way stopping in England to see his friend and hero.
This literary layover supplies the plot for downtown veteran Len Jenkin’s obscure yet intriguing Kraken, which is less valuable as historical biography than as a meditation on the path of the artist. Like a 19th-century My Dinner With Andre, the story pits a practical bourgeois versus a wild mystic; Melville’s brooding passion scares Hawthorne, but forces him to confront his own timid complacency. (Ironically, we see Melville eventually succumb to bureaucratic drudgery himself.) A “kraken” may be a mythical predatory sea monster, but it’s inner demons that drive Jenkin’s drama, which is conveyed with complexity, poetry, fantasy, and even song.
While Hawthorne and Melville (acted expertly by Augustus Truhn and Tom Escovar) are drawn with depth and sensitivity, Jenkin surrounds them with a less consistently engaging supporting crew. A sweet-faced angel of death—a tart literary critic from the afterlife—provides some eerie moments, but her sporadic narration and emcee duties become precious. A pair of cockney carnies lend some class conflict, but Daphne, a tattooed whore, doesn’t offer much more than the usual folk wisdom; her abusive husband/pimp, a “wandering Jew,” is more refreshing as an unlikely analogue to the two homeless Yankees. Mrs. Hawthorne makes an appearance, too, but seems wasted without anything distinct to contribute, though a couple of “local color” roles are rendered with welcome flair by Richardson Jones.
The production—elegantly spare yet dry—neither fully exploits nor counteracts the script’s static discursiveness. Director Michael Kimmel lets Jenkin’s dense text breathe, but the slow-paced, intermissionless two-hour staging could use some more wind in the sails. For those patient on the voyage, though, Kraken does dock at a satisfying port.