If you're in the mood for an old-fashioned drama dripping with period costumes and subtext, look no further than David Grimm's Tales From Red Vienna, now making its world premiere in a production by Manhattan Theatre Club at New York City Center Stage I. While the setting takes us back 100 years, the hazy dance of love and infatuation it presents is timeless.
Like that of the classic musical Cabaret, the backdrop of Tales From Red Vienna is intimately tied to the events of the story, highlighting the short-lived oasis of liberality that characterized urban life in the interwar period. It's Vienna, 1920. The Kaiser lives in exile following Austria-Hungary's defeat in World War I. Democracy reigns in Austria for the first time. The capital of the once-grand empire is now firmly under the political control of the social democrats (or "Reds"), much to the chagrin of wealthy aristocrats like "Mutzi" von Fessendorf (Tina Benko) who have been stripped of their nobility at the behest of the socialists and their political allies.
Mutzi's girlhood friend Heléna Altman (Nina Arianda) lost her husband to the war and has been forced to move, along with her maid, Edda (Kathleen Chalfant), from her marital home to a smaller flat. Like so many war widows, Heléna has resorted to selling her body in order to maintain a modest middle-class existence. Mutzi promises to help Heléna by introducing her to Béla Hoyos (Michael Esper), a handsome Hungarian journalist (for one of the socialist newspapers) who nevertheless leads a spectacularly bourgeois lifestyle. Heléna and Béla fall in love and begin to plan a new life together. That is until the arrival of a mysterious man from Heléna's past named Karl Hupka (Lucas Hall) threatens to derail everything.
Like his namesake forebears, Grimm offers a tale of remarkable complexity and depth. It seems fantastical and exotic on the surface, but Tales From Red Vienna actually deals with the universal problems of love, relationships, and independence. Do you actually need to find your "other half" in order to be complete? Is it possible to love many people in one lifetime? Are our remembrances of the dead based mostly on false nostalgia and delusion? Director Kate Whoriskey carefully navigates these fraught waters, leading her cast to dynamic and captivating performances.
Chalfant's Edda stands out as both comic relief and a major source of wisdom. Her delivery, perfectly timed to make you laugh, cuts straight to the bone. The devilishly handsome Esper succeeds in charming the audience, despite the full display of his considerable personality flaws. His bad-boy persona is alloyed with many gentlemanly qualities. This helps us easily understand how Heléna is swept off her feet. We take that journey with Arianda, whose very modern presence is an asset in this play, even if it occasionally feels alien in this land of waltzes and Linzer tortes.
John Lee Beatty's first-act set depicting Heléna's apartment is characterized by stunningly beautiful wooden furniture surrounded by ugly, over-busy wallpaper that looks like it was sampled from a Magic Eye book. In the second act, Beatty goes operatic with a gothic cemetery, complete with ivy-covered mausoleums and teary-eyed angels carved in relief. While these fully realized sets offer plenty for the eyes, they also require two intermissions to change and several extended transitions between, stretching the evening to 2 hours and 30 minutes.
Sound designers Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen underscore these transitions with jaunty Strauss waltzes and other old-world Austrian music, providing a contrast to the new world of cocaine and prostitution that now quietly dominates Viennese society. It's a reminder of the conservative forces surrounding the city, destined to return. "Here, they don't approve of tinkering with tradition," Béla presciently comments. "Here, war and music will always be in fashion and always in three-four time." Far more subtly, Heléna's sexual encounters are underscored by the judgmental ticking of a grandfather clock, doubtlessly owned by her deceased husband.
The struggle between old and new is at the heart of this story. Like Nora Helmer before her, Heléna must decide if she will continue operating by the rules of society or if she will forge her own path. Grimm's play is unlikely to scandalize its audience the way the world premiere of A Doll's House did. However, his craftsmanship rivals Ibsen's with regards to intelligently written drama designed to crack open a secret world.