James Knight and Lisa Bostnar in Far and Wide
(Photo: Richard Termine/The New York Times)
James Knight and Lisa Bostnar in Far and Wide
(Photo: Richard Termine/The New York Times)
Jonathan Bank, the Mint Theater Company's artistic director, has been calling the bluff of self-proclaimed serious theatergoers for just over 10 years by rummaging through cobweb-covered filing cabinets for obscure and/or forgotten plays. With the current adaptation of Arthur Schnitzler's Far and Wide, which Bank also directed, the venerable outfit is giving one of its severest yet most rewarding tests. All of those eager to keep their theater-struck credentials are hereby pointed towards a first New York production good enough to reveal the virtues of Schnitzler's drama about love, lust, and those who have difficulty distinguishing between the two.

Because Schnitzler (1862-1931) was a womanizer who kept accounts of his dalliances -- and also because, as a friend and admirer of Sigmund Freud, he was intrigued by the unconscious -- the Vienna-born-and-raised author was virtually compulsive in his need to document the complexities of desire. Although in his most famous play, Reigen (usually called La Ronde), he mocked the idea that love is ever a carefree day at the Hotel Sacher, he hardly rested his case with that roundelay of unrequited love. He'd warmed up for it with Anatol, a more or less light-hearted portrait of a cad (perhaps modeled on himself), and was still carping in 1925 when he wrote Traumnovelle, which Stanley Kubrick filmed as Eyes Wide Shut. (That flick seemed to play itself out in real life as the Tom Cruise-Nicole Kidman marriage foundered, implying yet again that Schnitzler's pessimism was well founded.)

Far and Wide (the title in German is Das Weite Land) is more of the same but no less scathing for being a variation on Schnitzler's insistent theme. Genia Hofreiter (Lisa Bostnar) is mourning the suicide of the young pianist Korsakov, whose advances she'd resisted. Husband Friedrich (Hans Tester), no longer extra-maritally canoodling with Adele Natter (Pilar Witherspoon), is irritated by his wife's fidelity because he can't excuse his straying on a tit-for-tat basis. "Your virtue has driven a man to his death," Friedrich brays at Genia; in response to the taunt, his wife succumbs to the charms of young Otto von Aigner (James Knight). Exultant, Friedrich gleefully grabs the opportunity to engage the ensign in an ill-fated duel.

While the central entanglements of the play are carried on in areas adjacent to the Hofreiter's Baden tennis court and in the lobby of a mountain resort, others are also serve-and-volleying. The flirtatious Erna Wahl (Victoria Mack) angles for Friedrich with only temporary success, and Adele Natter's seemingly impervious husband (Allen Lewis Rickman) plots revenge. Others are pulled inescapably into the destructive romantic maelstrom. Among them are Franz Mauer (Ezra Barnes), a physician who sees through Friedrich while only having cow eyes for the unresponsive Erna; and Anna Meinhold-Aigner (Lee Bryant), the ensign's mother, an actress whose wisdom is eventually of little avail.

When, towards the end of the play, the wages of love have amounted to the deaths of at least two men -- both of them Genia's wooers -- she understandably cries out, "No one is happy." It might just as well be Schnitzler himself trumpeting that statement. There's no getting away from his dire conviction. Otherwise, why would he write a play in which he dreams up so many ways in which characters are brought to despair and all because they pursued what in other quarters would be called life's saving grace: love? Indeed, it could be said that Schnitzler's career as an author of books and plays was an elegant thumbing of the nose at the expression "Love conquers all." He insists instead, in cool prose and cold terms, that love is conquered by all and in just about every devious way imaginable.

Lisa Bostnar, Ezra Barnes, and Hans Testerin Far and Wide(Photo: Richard Termine/The New York Times)
Lisa Bostnar, Ezra Barnes, and Hans Tester
in Far and Wide
(Photo: Richard Termine/The New York Times)
In preparing a version of the play from which a few of Schnitzler's characters have been excised, Bank has, frankly, been more assiduous as adapter than as director. Taking on the double workload, he has to worry not only about chattering and lovelorn upper-middle-class characters on the page but also about where to put them on the stage. When too many gather simultaneously, he simply plops them in chairs or has them amble about. During a scene that unfolds in what seems a busy hotel lobby, he has characters exchange damning confidences across open spaces. Having perhaps bitten off more than he can chew, he leaves his ensemble to do more than their share of scenery chewing.

Of the actors, who may have been left largely to their own devices, Lisa Bostnar is truly accomplished. By this time entitled to be called the company's first lady, and reminiscent of Fawlty Towers's Connie Booth, her Genia is a woman haunted by her past and her premonitions. First spotted peering blankly through a chain-link fence that set designer Vicki R. Davis has placed upstage (it's anachronistic, yes, but no matter), Bostnar instantly conveys her imprisoned emotions. At other times, particularly in the exchanges she has with Hans Tester as Friedrich, she suggests the frustrations endured by an actor who is not getting back as much as she's giving; Friedrich's knotty psyche isn't easy to play, and Tester has only partially solved the puzzle.

The other obvious pro is Lee Bryant, a woman of a certain age who's not only beautiful but deeply effective. Ezra Barnes makes Doctor Mauer sympathetic rather than simply pathetic, and Victoria Mack, possessed of a limpid voice, is haughty as Erna but could ratchet up the character's flirty-flirty quality a bit. The rest of the cast is hit-and-miss. Allen Lewis Rickman works the hardest, since he has to play the simmering Natter as well as a (Jewish?) hotel guest whose dry cleaning hasn't been returned promptly.

Das Weite Land was previously adapted in 1979 by Tom Stoppard and called Undiscovered Country, which is really a more evocative translation of the title than the one Bank has coined. Presented at London's Royal National Theatre, Stoppard's treatment was presumably enhanced by the company's relatively generous budget. Jonathan Bank, enterprising as he is, has no such ready resources. For that reason, he and his creative team can only do so much to fill in Schnitzler's wide ("weite") canvas. Davis's chain-link fence and movable tennis nets make points about boundaries but lose their effectiveness the more they're shifted here and there. Also, Schnitzler is writing about people whose wardrobes are full but whose figurative cupboards are too often bare; Bank and costume designer Theresa Squire, attempting to illustrate the economics of fin-de-siècle Vienna, are limited by the economics of the Mint Theater Company.

Still, Far and Wide is a welcome undertaking. Its equivalent -- much less its better -- may not be seen any time soon.