David Grimm, the author of this new three act play, has had other works produced at the Rattlestick, the Public, at Hartford Stage and in La Jolla among the Regionals. He is a seasoned playwright who is still at it, despite the lack of New York interest or attention. The Manhattan Theatre Club is a worthy non-profit organization, and it’s given him a splendid production this time out in their larger space at City Center in New York.
Tales From Red Vienna is set in Vienna in 1920 when abrasion was in the air because of the rise of the Socialist Party living in contention with the faded aristocracy that had flourished when Johann Strauss was setting the town’s tone. He’s peopled his play with prototypes and he’s given them dialogue that smacks of the less distinguished Warner Brothers melodramas.
Nina Arianda (she of that great name, made to be seen in lights) is the star and though she is perfectly competent as Heléna Altman, a war widow who has had to prostitute herself, literally, in order to survive after losing her husband in the war, the play has somehow made her seem less distinctive. She is living in rooms with a housekeeper, Edda Schmidt, played with high humor by the estimable Kathleen Chalfant, who has most of the zingier rejoinders. It’s fun to watch this venerable veteran playing against type. I don’t think she’s ever played a servant before. In her forty years onstage she distinguished herself most memorably in Angels in America and in Wit, and her film/TV career is equally impressive. She is sharp and amusing as a lighter version of Cabaret‘s “Frau Schneider,” and though this is Vienna in 1920 one is reminded of Thelma Ritter’s “Birdie” in All About Eve. All three characters are outside the central story, and each comments on the choices made by the central character.
In this case, that would be Heléna Altman, the role that brings Nina Arianda back to the stage after her great successes in Born Yesterday and Venus in Fur. Unfortunately, the widow Altman doesn’t offer the highly gifted Arianda much opportunity to shine. In the opening moments, played in moody lighting with virtually no dialogue, she creates a woman of mystery, a prostitute who clearly loathes her line of work. She manages to suggest a past that was promising, a present that disgusts her. Helped by Michael Esper as her customer Béla Hoyos, these opening moments are attention grabbers. But in the tale that Mr. Grimm has concocted, melodrama rears its head and blunts the excitement promised. Arianda is an original; Helena is not, and there is not much the actress can do to bring her to vivid life.
The play brought to mind the work of Lillian Hellman when she was off her mark; it has flashes clearly influenced by Ibsen’s attitude toward the plight of women at one time, living lives often tied to the idiocy of the men they were tied to. The men, Hoyos the Socialist, and a late-arriving Karl Hopka, are opposites and they each have opportunities to spout their very different value systems, each offering Heléna a different choice as to how to approach the rest of her life. I won’t tell you which she chooses, but though it does hand us a surprise just before the final curtain, it didn’t seem earned to me and was therefore unsatisfying.
It was refreshing to see a new and original play set in another place in an earlier time, for most of the new works that have been coming our way have dealt with contemporary issues. But the Manhattan Theatre Club has followed The Snow Geese this season with Tales of Red Vienna, another less than gripping visit to the era that ended the Gilded Era, in both of which gifted actresses were unable to connect with characters who simply didn’t come alive on the page.
As I see it, Mary Louise Parker and Nina Arianda are both owed something better. How about a revival of John Van Druten’s Old Acquaintance? It’s no master work, but it does offer two charismatic ladies a chance to have a go at each other as it once did on Broadway for Jane Cowl and Peggy Wood, and on screen for two real arch enemies, Bette Davis and Miriam Hopkins. Arianda and Parker, both originals, would be fun to watch in a well crafted play with dimensional characters.
Tales from Red Vienna is onstage through April 27, 2014 at MTC Stage I, New York City Center, 131 W 55th St (betwn 6th & 7th), New York, NY 10019 . Details and tickets
Richard Seff, Broadway performer, agent, playwright, librettist, columnist adds novelist to his string of accomplishments, with the publication of his first novel, TAKE A GIANT STEP. His first book, Supporting Player: My Life Upon the Wicked Stage, celebrates his lifetime on stage and behind the scenes. Both books are available through online booksellers, including Amazon.com.
He has also written the book to SHINE! The Horatio Alger Musical which was a triple prize winner at the New York Musical Theatre Festival (NYMF).
Each year, Actors Equity recognizes the year’s most outstanding supporting player with, appropriately enough, the Richard Seff Award