By: David Shewar
Manhattan Theatre Club’s production of David Grimm’s Tales From Red Vienna, a so-so drama set in the early 20th century with heavy references to previous plays, gave me a touch of déjà vu. Earlier this season, MTC presented Sharr White’s The Snow Geese, a so-so drama set in the early 20th century with heavy references to previous plays. Snow Geese took place in upstate New York during World War I and contained echoes of O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night and Ibsen’s The Wild Duck-with some of Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard thrown in.
Tales takes place in Vienna not long after World War I and contains echoes of O’Neill’s Anna Christie and Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. Fortunately, Tales contains three stellar performances by the leading actresses; rhythmic, dance-like direction by Kate Whoriskey; and gorgeous period sets by John Lee Beatty and costumes by Anita Yavich.
In addition to the previously mentioned references are influences of Arthur Schnitzler’s sly sexual comedies such as La Ronde. Helena Altman, a war widow, is forced to sell her body to pay the rent. One of her clients, Hungarian journalist Bela Hoyos, is also the lover of her best friend, the ditzy, deposed countess Mutzi von Fessendorf. When Mutzi asks Helena to pretend to court Bela to cover up her own affair with him, naturally the fake tryst becomes a real one. The political climate of post-Empire Austria is evoked through the crumbling status of these former elites, as well as through acidic commentary by Helena’s sage housekeeper Edda and the anti-Semitic taunts suffered by Jewish delivery boy Rudy. Through a bizarre plot twist, Helena’s secret is exposed and she must defend her scandalous life choices, not unlike Ibsen’s Nora or O’Neill’s Anna. But these heavily imposed incidents seem like the playwright talking to us rather than the characters living their lives.
Nina Arianda, whose sexual intensity in Venus in Fur won her a Tony Award, is equally blazing here. But now she is a real woman rather than the embodiment of sensuality in the former play, which also had an MTC production. The reliable Kathleen Chalfant offers a sharp Edda, and Tina Benko is delightfully featherheaded as the shallow Mutzi. These ladies go far to make this Viennese waltz passably entertaining, but they do not make up for the familiarity of the tune.
March 18-April 27. Manhattan Theater Club at NY City Center Stage I, 130 W. 55th St., NYC. Tue 7pm, Wed 2pm & 7pm, Thu-Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 2pm. Running time 2 and a half hours, including two intermissions. $89. (212) 581-1212.www.nycitycenter.org
Photo: Joan Marcus