Sunday, March 2, 2014

Tales from Red Vienna ***

Although far from flawless, this new play by David Grimm is the most interesting thing I have seen at Manhattan Theatre Club so far this season. It presents a vivid cross-section of Viennese life right after World War I. Austria has lost its empire, the socialists are in control in Vienna, the resentful aristocrats have lost their titles and the Jews are, as so often, convenient scapegoats. Helena Altman (Nina Arianda) is a war widow forced to take extreme measures to survive. Edda Schmidt (Kathleen Chalfant) is her loyal longtime housekeeper. "Mutzi" von Fessendorf (Tina Benko) is a haughty self-centered childhood friend who has ulterior motives for introducing Helena to Bela Hoyos (Michael Esper), a handsome Hungarian socialist journalist. Rudy Zuckermaier (Michael Goldsmith) is a young Jewish grocery deliveryman with a crush on Helena. Karl Hupka (Lucas Hall) is a mysterious figure about whom I dare not say more.  In this era of 90-minute plays sans intermission, it is a novelty to see a play with three acts and two intermissions. The play starts with a gripping scene that certainly gets your attention. The rest of the first act plays out well, but the second act is considerably weaker with an abrupt turn to melodrama. For me, the final act did not provide a satisfactory resolution. Why then, you may ask, am I giving it three stars? The two main reasons are Arianda and Chalfant, who are among our finest stage actresses. It is always a privilege to see them in action. Also, I credit the play for its ambitions, even though it doesn't fully realize them. Esper needs to turn up the volume a bit and Benko needs to tone things down a smidgen. With over two weeks until opening night, I suspect that everything will be more polished by then. John Lee Beatty's set design is appropriately oppressive and Anita Yavich's costumes are very good. Kate Whoriskey's direction does not call attention to itself. Running time: 2 hours 25 minutes including 2 intermissions.

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