Heléna Altman (Nina Arianda), a young Viennese woman widowed by World War I and still dressed in mourning, finds herself turning to prostitution in order to survive. An early stage direction reads, in reference to one of her johns, “He fucks her. Heléna doesn’t cry,” which should give some indication of her frank and somewhat inscrutable emotional state. David Grimm’s Tales from Red Vienna isn’t, after all, a story of budding romance snapped at its peak. “Were we in love?” Heléna asks her servant and lifelong confidant Edda (Kathleen Chalfant). “You were both young an incredibly stupid,” she replies. “It’s easier for stupid people to be in love.”
Those who surround Heléna offer her little support. Rudy (Michael Goldsmith), a Jewish grocer’s son, is both young enough to be unconditionally infatuated with Heléna and too young to have any sense of his folly. And a friend-in-name-only, “Mutzi” von Fessendorf (Tina Benko), appears after eighteen months to usher her back out into society. Apologizing for her absence, she notes that, “death is just so—well, awkward.” But her thin veneer of charity masks, perhaps only for herself, her own selfishness: despite being four months pregnant with her husband Hermann’s child, she wants to use Heléna as a beard while she pursues an affair with a socialist journalist, Béla Hoyos (Michael Esper)—the john who fucks Heléna in the opening scene. It should come as no surprise that our widow and her client soon find themselves falling in love.
Tales from Red Vienna, then, is a melodrama on the order of ‘seventies European fare like Swept Away and Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, in which a complicated sexual relationship gives way to lush abandonment of inhibitions. It is a wonderful play and a first-rate production, with a cast that would be tough to match. Ms. Arianda, unsurprisingly, is devastating as Heléna. Two years ago, she gave a masterful performance in Venus in Fur, which required quick alternations between femme fatale and ingenuous airhead. Now, she tackles something quite different, a sincere and foundering woman who can barely navigate her own emotions let alone her commitment to her husband, her country, and her social world; such versatility clearly makes her one of our best stage actors. Ms. Chalfant, too, is both warm and cynical, shrewd and heartfelt. She can refer to herself as “two eyes stuck in burlap sack” with grace and without self-pity. And Ms. Benko nearly upstages everyone with her fluty self-absorption; she is hysterical when mistaking Ruby’s name: “Now Rrrreuben, you hand me that paper like a good boy,” she trills with the confidence of the proud and ignorant.
“I like a story,” the woman sitting next to me said during the first intermission. “So you can imagine the time I’ve had at the theater in the last thirty years. Too many young playwrights think it’s all just shit and fuck and pussy.” Well, there’s that in Red Vienna, too, I suppose, but it’s all executed with the unwavering class of an old Hollywood movie. We almost expect the words THE END to zoom towards us after the final blackout, after which the memories of three hours well spent percolate through our minds for the remainder of the evening.