What happens when you combine The Scarlet Letter and A Doll’s House and set it in Vienna, Austria circa 1920? You end up with Manhattan Theatre Club’s latest venture: Tales From Red Vienna by David Grimm.
Things aren’t easy for Heléna Altman (Nina Arianda), who must find a way to support herself after her husband is presumably killed in the war. She resorts the world’s oldest profession until by chance one of her johns, Béla (Michael Esper) turns into a love interest. Picnics in the graveyard of her missing husband ensue and the plot twists as Heléna’s past returns to haunt her.
Supporting the action is longtime friend (in a Real Housewives of Vienna kind of way) “Mutzi” von Fessendorf (Tina Benko), housekeeper Edda (Kathleen Chalfant) and local grocery boy Rudy (Michael Goldsmith). The trio provide terrific comedic reprieve as Edda nips from any bottle close at hand and Mutzi manipulates Heléna until her cougar-like actions backfire.
As a woman on the verge of implosion, Arianda taps into a range of emotions from desperation to desire, but isn’t able to embrace the period style of Grimm’s script. In fact, the setting itself feels obsure. Beyond a few off-handed references to the war and a dollop of “schlag” (an Austrian term for heavy cream) in their coffee, the period doesn’t seem to serve the play. Arianda’s movement and carriage—even her vocal delivery—feel idiosyncratic to the script, and I couldn’t help but think how wildly dynamic her performance may have been if the entire thing was reset outside of McCoy Air Force Base in central Florida during the Vietnam War. The rest of the ensemble fares better, but this is Heléna’s tale to tell.
What did the critics think?
“Arianda, so striking in her comic roles in Born Yesterday and Venus in Fur, which deservedly won her a Tony, makes very little impression. The show is a telling reminder that actors are only as good as the material. Tales From Red Vienna is the second World War I-era drama from MTC. It joins The Snow Geese, a Broadway turkey from the fall. If these shows made the cut for the company’s season, one wonders what the rejects were.” Daily News
“Astonishing curtain revelations (there are three acts) can be fun in a farce, or effective when handled with care in serious material. But Grimm, so adept with period pastiche in works like Measure for Pleasure and The Savages of Hartford, can’t seem to keep his eyes on the road here. The tone — now romantic, now schmaltzy, now Ibsenesque — wheels round and round, circling the plot as the Gürtel does Vienna.” Vulture.com
“It may have been the sexual kink factor in Mr. Ives’s play that made Ms. Arianda seem a natural choice for “Tales.” But the kind of mannered, genteel humility she’s required to assume here doesn’t become her. She has a couple of bracingly spontaneous moments — a sudden whoop of surprised laughter in a rainstorm, an escaped sigh of desire in a graveyard — that remind you how talented she is. Mostly, though, she seems as confined by this play’s stale artifice as the fresh young Heléna is by her suffocating layers of mourning.” New York Times
Tales From Red Vienna
Manhattan Theatre Club
Stage I, New York City Center
131 West 55th Street
Through April 27
Matthew Wexler is the Broadway Blog’s editor.