BWW Reviews: Arianda at Her Best in TALES FROM RED VIENNA
Through dim lights shining past a thin curtain, the audience sees two shadowy figures, male and female, hesitantly, and with few words, going through the paces of the world's oldest business transaction. Money is placed on a table, the purchased service is forcefully taken upon that same table and the female figure is left alone, ashamed, disgusted and grief-stricken. Through the darkness, it's apparent she's wearing the black clothing of a woman in mourning.
Suddenly, the transition out of the chilling opening scene is accompanied by music from Johann Strauss' merry operetta of infidelity and sexual hi-jinks, Die Fledermaus. Later on, a character makes reference to the old adage that comedy is tragedy that happens to other people. Another notes how the complications of her life make her feel like a character in a play.
Indeed, with couple of tweaks to the story and a change of tone, David Grimm's engrossing drama, Tales From Red Vienna, would greatly resemble the kind of frothy entertainments its 1920s aristocratic characters would enjoy on a night on the town.
The plot, turning on a convenient coincidence and an inconvenient twist, involves such familiar characters as a beautiful aristocrat who has fallen on hard financial times, her devilishly passive-aggressive best friend, the callow lad who has a crush on her and her faithful, but dry-witted servant. Heck, there's even a Marxist!
And while Grimm's play is quite humorous, in the bon mot and banter way, the cruelest joke is how the main character realizes she's outgrown her use for the traditional happy ending she's offered.
Nina Arianda gives the best, and certainly most nuanced performance of her New York stage career, as Heléna, a socialite who was widowed by The Great War and, without any other means to support herself, turns to prostitution. This was a common scenario among Viennese women of her time and police were especially watchful for women dressed for mourning who walked the streets at night.
Tina Benko is her gossipy friend, Mutzi, one of the few upper crusters who still keeps tabs with her; mostly because she delights in having the upper hand. Costume designer Anita Yavich dresses her in some ravishing outfits that contrast nicely with set designer John Lee Beatty's somber depiction of the well-worn remains of the décor of Heléna's once-elegant apartment.
Anxious to get her pal back out in the world, Mutzi arranges for a gentlemen friend to escort them to the symphony, but it turns out that he and Heléna... ummm... have already met.
The fellow, leftist journalist Bela (Michael Esper), winds up being one of those pushy types that doesn't take no for answer, going so far as trying to strike up conversations while Heléna desires private time at her husband's memorial (more excellent work by Beatty). But Bela is an awkward romantic at heart, especially when talking politics, and eventually begins winning her over.
Kate Whoriskey's direction peaks early with the unsettling opening scene, but a flaw in the production is that Arianda and Esper never give off suitable sparks. The leading lady has far more chemistry with Kathleen Chalfant, whose wry delivery of servant Edda's observations adds arch humor. Michael Goldsmith delivers fine work as the young Jewish grocery boy, Rudy, a character used to foreshadow the political horrors to come.
But the evening belongs to Arianda, who plays Heléna's growth with empathetic conviction as she rejects societal norms and learns that she can survive a life of true independence.