Tales From Red Vienna
The setting is Vienna, Austria in 1920 and something strange is going on behind the veiled black curtain in David Grimm’s intriguing if uneven new play "Tales from Red Vienna." Heléna (Nina Arianda), our heroine, appears to be leading a double life. During the day she’s an upper class WWI widow doing her best to wait out the mourning period with her trusted servant, Edda (Kathleen Chalfant). We sense there’s some type of trouble beyond the fact that she’s lost her husband to the War.
At night, she seems to be involved in some morally questionable (for the time to be certain) way of making ends meet. In the first scene of the play, we get a murkily lit glimpse of Heléna arriving at home with a gentleman, who quickly proves to be much less of a gentleman than we might have suspected. He leaves money. They have sex. Is it against her will? It’s hard to tell. She doesn’t seem happy. He’s certainly pleased.
As the play unfolds, we discover Heléna’s husband left her pretty financially crippled but she is doing her best to keep up the illusion of wealth. Enter her frenemy, the Countess Mutzi von Fessendorf (Tina Benko) who decides to introduce Heléna to an eligible bachelor journalist friend, Bela (Michael Esper). Mutzi’s motives are not quite selfless and Bela turns out to be that same man who had sex with Heléna’s in scene one.
Will he expose her? Will he try and extort money from her? Will he fall in love with her?
Suffice to say, Heléna is given a second chance at love and happiness only to have it all dashed by the arrival of a mystery man (Lucas Hall).
Another character, Rudy (Michael Goldsmith), a sweet 18-year-old grocery boy with a mad crush on Heléna appears to exist solely to point out the changing political and social tide, which is topsy-turvy at best with socialists taking over the government and anti-Semitism rearing its ugly head. (Rudy is beaten for being Jewish).
It all sounds so melodramatic, doesn’t it? Because it is! Grimm is to be applauded for writing a play about how poorly widows of veterans were treated in post-WW1 Europe and how some were forced into prostitution for survival. And somewhere in the messiness onstage at MTC there might be the makings of a good play. However, Grimm and director Kate Whoriskey haven’t quite gotten there.
And it doesn’t help that they’ve chosen Arianda as their leading lady. It’s hard to believe this is the same actress who enthralled theatregoers in "Venus in Fur" a few years back (and nabbed a Tony for doing so in a very competitive year). A problematic performance at best, Arianda’s approach to Heléna is too hesitant, too tentative and I never sensed she was truly playing the period.
On the other hand, the lively Chalfant is a delight, delivering self-deprecating lines like: "I’m what widows are supposed to look like: two eyes lost in a burlap sack," one moment and providing Heléna with comfort the next. And Grimm gives her a terrific speech about how the living should be honored, not the dead.
Esper is thoroughly engaging as Bela, a character with a great story arc. He’s someone seemingly sinister who turns out to be quite good and true.
Goldsmith is charming as Rudy and Benko squeezes every possible ounce of camp out of her role. "I would like to look down at you for a change," she darts at Heléna, only to drolly pretend she didn’t really mean it.
The production is nice to look at with period perfect work by John Lee Beatty (set design) and Anita Yavich (costumes).
The idea here is an impressive one but the execution left me cold.
"Tales from Red Vienna" runs through April 27 at Manhattan Theatre Club at New York City Center-Stage 1, 131 West 55th Street, in New York City. For information and tickets, call 212-581-1212 or visit http://www.nycitycenter.org/tickets/productionNew.aspx?performanceNumber=7718