THE BLOG

First Nighter: David Grimm's "Tales From Red Vienna"

03/18/2014 11:24 pm ET | Updated May 18, 2014

Nowhere in the program for Tales From Red Vienna, at Manhattan Theater Club's City Center Stage I, is there any indication that it's timed in anticipation of the 100th anniversary of the June 28, 1914 outbreak of World War I--or that playwright David Grimm wrote it with that in mind. According to a MTC spokesperson, neither is the case.

Yet, the rather histrionic work, which takes place in the Vienna of 1920, has everything to do with the direct effect of the so-called Great War--"the war to end all wars"--on three of its six pivotal characters. It has only a slightly less direct effect on its other three figures. (Perhaps only coincidentally, Peter Gill's Versailles, currently at London's Donmar Warehouse, which takes place in 1919, is deliberately programmed in remembrance of the First World War these 100 years on.)

When first viewed through the veil-like curtain designer John Lee Beatty places before his set, the also veiled Heléna Altman (Nina Arianda), is entering a home that appears to be hers. She's followed by a bearded man, who looks about her age and who, the audience later learns, is socialist journalist Béla Hoyos (Michael Esper). Béla puts what looks like cash down on one tabletop and takes Heléna on another.

Then both veils are removed, and the play proper begins. Heléna, served by outspoken retainer Edda Schmidt (Kathleen Chalfant) and adored by Jewish delivery boy Rudy Zuckermaier (Michael Goldsmith), is a war widow trying to make ends meet as a goodtime girl. It's a living held against her by Béla, who's so determined to redeem her that he forces what he considers his best attentions on her in a subsequent scene where she's visiting her husband's tombstone.

Béla's persistence is so effective that he wins her over, whereupon they both alienate the sympathies of "Mutzi" von Fessendorf (Tina Benko), the gossipy friend who introduced the lovers. While Edda hovers with the aim of keeping Heléna on as straight and narrow a path as possible and with Rudy dancing attendance as he endures a mugging that foreshadows worsening Viennese anti-Semitism, things slowly begin to look as if they'll come up aces for Heléna and Béla.

But then they threaten not to.

(Spoiler alert: it's impossible to discuss the play and its purpose without disclosing even discreetly the following plot info. Anyone adamant about not learning of script twists or surprises had better read no farther.)

Since the body of Heléna's husband was supposedly destroyed at the front, the above-mentioned tombstone stands near no buried corpse. So when a man called Karl Hupka (Lucas Hall) arrives only a brief instant or two after Heléna and Béla commit to one another, their happiness is thrown into a WWI cocked hat.

Obviously. Grimm is looking at the damage the war did and not only to the soldiers fighting it but also to those keeping home fires burning, particularly the women--with Heléna standing in for all of them. What was called shellshock then, battle fatigue in World War II and is now considered post-traumatic stress disorder isn't limited to veterans, Grimm posits. This is, of course, an observation that applies today as well as back in that day.

To make his point, though, Grimm has drawn on familiar conceits. For instance, there's the old fantasy of the insistent Lothario redeeming the fallen woman, perhaps most famously employed in the 1990 hit film Pretty Woman. And how about the one where a long-missing spouse returns at the crucial moment? That one was widely popularized, for one example, in My Favorite Wife, the 1940 flick starring Cary Grant and Irene Dunne?

Even excusing these sorts of appropriations, Grimm's tale (forgive me, I was going to say Grimm's fairy tale), is inconsistent in the telling. It's also unfair. Making the case for the fate women endured during the Great War--and, by implication, in every war--he scants the physiological and psychological wounds men suffered.

He asks understanding for the childless Heléna's solutions to poverty. She receives the dramatist's forgiveness, while Karl doesn't. His failings--as opposed to Heléna's admitted mistakes--aren't excused. While he limps as a show of his affliction, he's introduced as a deserter and depicted as violent. The balance is tipped against him through behavior that is nowhere as fully traced to his harrowing experiences as Heléna's is to hers.

Also, Béla's stalking Heléna dwindles to a good socialist's only slightly misguided intentions, although his socialism remains a superficial character trait. The prologue, in which he has his crude way with her, surfaces later as no more than a swain's too fervent attention. Béla's refusal to accept repeated resistance from her devolves into a seduction of the ultimately willing, all of it adjacent to her presumed dead husband's tombstone. If patrons flash on Richard III interrupting Lady Anne when she's following her murdered husband's corpse, they can be forgiven.

As directed by Kate Whoriskey, the cast does an admirable job. Arianda--after her glittering Venus in Fur breakout performance and the Born Yesterday follow-up--has another demanding assignment, but a more subdued one. Initially stunning in black as seen through Beatty's curtain veil (Anita Yavich's costumes), she plays the battered-heart prostitute with as much subtlety as the role allows.

Esper is more than acceptable as Béla. He certainly can't help it if the man he's playing too often shows signs of becoming a character in a farce. The always-reliable Chalfant helps matters whenever Edda arrives with tea on a tray or something of that nature. (Isn't it just a few weeks ago that she was playing the NAACP's Mary Ovington in the New Federal Theatre's Dr. Du Bois and Miss Ovington?) Benko, Goldsmith and Hall serve their roles well.

Incidentally, though with his title Grimm suggests a political bent to his play as well as through several mentions of approaching Communism, he doesn't substantiate the reference to any extent. Instead, he presents a domestic drama in which death and rebirth are themes--with flowers and a closed window serving as increasingly prominent symbols. But it's not an especially persuasive domestic drama, at that.