“New York, New York” has everything: murder, necrophilia, drugs, prostitution , theft, gay priests, Japanese tourists. When a pimp beats a hooker to death, it’s just another mess to be cleaned up. The only thing missing is New York itself.
Marlene Streeruwitz’s play is set in the public men’s toilets at the Burggasse subway station in Vienna. And although the play begins and ends with the belt-out tune that Liza, Frank and a legion of lounge singers have claimed as their theme song, there are no further references to the world’s greatest city. New York, the playwright suggests, is everywhere.
Frau Horvath (Vera Borek) presides over the restroom in the manner of a temple’s haughty high priestess, granting access while accepting money from some , barring others, even hearing pleas and confessions. Dressed in a black robe and cardinal’s cap, she holds the keys to the inner sanctum on a long chain around her neck. The antechamber leads to three private doors: “Pissoir,” “W.C.” and an unmarked one whose secret is revealed at the play’s end.
The Burggasse station is located on the “gurtle,” the border zone that delineates Vienna’s inner and outer districts. On one side, artists, universities and theaters create a safe and civilized enclave; on the other, prostitutes and the working class jostle and struggle. The Burggasse toilets are a classless magnet with further special qualities. Built before the end of the Austro-Hungarian empire, they bear the “regal and imperial” designation granted by the doubly crowned King and Emperor Franz Joseph.
Regular patrons include a young deaf-mute half-wit (Fritz Hammel) who brings his street pickups to the underground facilities; Professor Chrobath (Heinz Petters), who’s obsessed with collecting pieces from the city’s subway; and Herr Sellner (Toni Boehm), a tourist guide who brings groups of Japanese to photograph Frau Horvath and the “regal and imperial” insignia in the antechamber.
Streeruwitz mixes theater styles at random, a penchant of the “chaos”-inspired director Emmy Werner as well. In one especially entertaining scene, a pregnant woman (Cornelia Lippert) and the deaf-mute snap into a romantic pas de deux to the accompaniment of cinema voiceovers, she mouthing B-movie cliches as he lip-synchs Shakespeare.
Among the solid cast, kudos go to Hammel’s complex perf as the energetic and pathetic deaf-mute and Borek’s commanding presence as Frau Horvath. Director Werner gives Streeruwitz’s cynical play one of the best productions at the Volkstheater this season.
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