New York City Theater
"Tales From Red Vienna"
MTC at City Center Stage I
Although “Tales From Red Vienna” falls apart somewhere around the middle, David Grimm’s Gothic tale is like a plateful of deliciously decadent sacher torte. That plus two especially fine performances make for an evening that appeals to the down and dirty animal in all of us.
It begins in silence. A black-clad woman enters, furtively, then a stalking man. Money is given, followed by a quick, thrusting sexual encounter on a table and he’s gone. She would be the widowed Heléna Altman, hurting for cash, reluctantly selling herself to a pick-up whom we meet later under vastly different circumstances.
Nobody, it seems, is who they seem to be at first. Helena’s supposed friend, Mutzi (Tina Benko), is a vicious woman pretending to set Helena up with eligible men as a cover for her own yearnings. Then there’s Edda (Kathleen Chalfant), the loyal servant; Rudy (Michael Goldsmith), the delivery boy in love with Helena; the desirable Béla (Michael Esper); and the mysterious Karl (Lucas Hall). All have secrets; all are besmirched with various kinds of love.
The time is 1920, just after World War I, with the upcoming second world conflict’s distant clouds on the horizon. Though buried in a play that devolves into a messy triangle of desire, such a bleak future hangs over each character.
Rudy, who’s Jewish, receives the most overt physical blows. Others are sideswiped by psychological and emotional shortcomings. But, like the setting, which starts as a plush interior then proceeds to a cemetery and finally to a practically bare stage – from life to death -- Grimm’s characters are stripped of stability.
While cheerful Viennese waltzes linger, complex Mahler is more indicative of the Europe to come. “War and music will always be in fashion” and “It will all end badly.”
As Heléna, Tony winner Nina Arianda again shows she must be one of the most natural and spontaneous actress around. She grounds the production, breathing the very air that we in the audience do. She has a worthy partner in the Béla of Michael Esper, who embodies opportunism desire and empathy in one.
Atmospherically directed by Kate Whoriskey, “Tales From Red Vienna” ekes Ibsenite dankness and oppression. Though its three acts go downhill, ending in melodrama, the ride is rich in moody romanticism.
--David A. Rosenberg
April 10, 2014