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Ronald Guttman and George Morfogen
in The Lonely Way
(Photo © Rahav Segev)
"How little we all really know each other," Professor Wegrat says toward the end of Arthur Schnitzler's 1904 tragi-comedy The Lonely Way, which is only now having its New York premiere. Professor Wegrat makes the not-particularly-insightful comment only minutes after his son (or is he?) Felix wonders, "Who really cares enough about anyone else to actually know them?"

The question hovers above Schnitzler's grim opus long before it's expressed explicitly. The turn-of-the-century Vienna denizens inhabiting the play go out of their way to be unknowable -- literally. Almost all the eight focal characters -- there's a valet who does nothing more than introduce visitors -- talks about needing to take long walks alone or, better yet, long journeys. One of them even confesses to running out on his fiancée the night after he deflowered her, because he heard the call of the open road. As he admits his action, he's looking at a metal sculpture that set designer Vicki R. Davis has positioned upstage, an abstract representation of a beckoning thoroughfare.

Yes, solitary strolls through life are what Schnitzler refers to in his title, Der Einsame Weg, and Margret Schaefer and director Jonathan Bank have translated the phrase fairly enough. Indeed, these melancholy characters are such compulsive isolators that in the talky, anxious, frequently redundant text, they acquire a unique fascination. It's as if Schnitzler, having listened for 30 years to orchestras cranking out Johann Strauss's Tales From the Vienna Woods, thought, "You want tales from the Vienna Woods? I'll give you tales from the Vienna Woods. I'll tell you about the people walking singly and silently among those trees. I'll show you what's eating the determined amblers boiling with the kinds of neuroses that Sigmund Freud has been analyzing over there at 19 Berggasse."

To that end, the author trots out the Wegrat family. There's Professor Wegrat (George Morfogen), his dying wife Gabrielle (Sherry Skinker), his brooding-through-her-smiles daughter Johanna (Constance Tarbox), and his itching-to-go son Felix (Eric Alperin). They're regularly joined in their well-spoken doldrums by the pessimistic, doomed Stephan von Sala (Jordan Lage), the has-been artist Julian Fichtner (Ronald Guttman), the retired actress Irene Herms (Lisa Bostnar), and the preoccupied Dr. Franz Reumann (John Leonard Thompson). As they all wander into the Wegrats' garden, Fichtner's studio, or Sala's garden with its ominous reflecting pond, they connect and disconnect. Collectively, they attempt to straighten out their erstwhile or wished-for relationships with one another.

These flimsy links are tangled enough to cause many a mishap before final curtain. Fichtner, you see, impregnated Gabrielle with Felix before heading down freedom's highway; now, he wants his son to acknowledge him. Herms loved Fichtner and wanted his child. She's super-grieved to learn that he's got a son by another woman. Johanna pines for Sala but is distressed to learn she can't have him, for more reasons than one. Sala never expects much from life and wonders of dying, "at some time or other, in the depths of his soul, is there a decent man who thinks of anything else?" He's brought low when he finds out that his death is closer than he'd thought. The gloom that Schnitzler detects underneath all the giddy Viennese waltzers could have been ultimately numbing; but, for the most part, it isn't, because the playwright has created characters who are intelligent and emotional about their problems in equally persuasive parts. They even discuss their clashing plights with lyricism. You might get the urge to yell "Snap out of it!" at them, but you hold off because you want to hear them articulate their fears and passions just a little more.

Ronald Guttman and Lisa Bostnar in The Lonely Way
(Photo © Rahav Segev)
There's another reason why The Lonely Way enthralls, when it does. It's why Schaefer and Bank note in the program that the play is set in the present. As much as or even more than Vienna 1904, the setting could be patches of America in 2005. The detachment that's Schnitzler's figures experience feels like today, so much so that set designer Vicki R. Davis deploys contemporary Frank Gehry furniture: Gray wooden hassocks that look like three-dimensional trapezoids are plunked on the stage (they apparently retail for $1000 for the set), looking uncomfortable enough that the characters' urge to walk rather than sit makes sense. What neither Davis nor director Bank have provided are cellphones for the walkers -- you know, those accessories that help give the impression of connection. But, thanks to sound designer Jane Shaw, age-of-anxiety composers Bela Bartók, Gyorgy Ligeti, and Arnold Schoenberg are aired between scenes so that Schnitzler's time-is-out-of-joint chord is played and replayed.
Director Bank's cast members do Schnitzler proud. Jordan Lage, one of New York's most reliable and least-sung actors, looks handsome in the suits and overcoats that costumer Henry Shaffer has given him and speaks his lines as the poetry of an ill-fated man. (But Lage's Stephan doesn't look ill, as the dialogue insists.) Robert Guttman's Fichtner cuts a stunning figure as he paces the stage with gathering angst. As usual, Lisa Bostnar conveys the inner doubts of an aristocratic beauty. Constance Tarbox, who looks enough like Cherry Jones to be her younger sister, would do better were she not channeling the simper that Jones likes to employ for softening harsh speeches. They and their colleagues make Schnitzler's 101-year-old play an affecting bulletin about disaffection.

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