Los Angeles has not lacked for productions of Arthur Schnitzler’s “La Ronde,” from Peter Lefcourt’s Hollywood update “La Ronde de Lunch 2000” to TheSpyAnts version set in 1979 Studio 54. Something still resonates about this century-old play, this circle of sex and deception and frustrated love, perhaps more than usual in Hollywood. Zephyr Theater version distills the cast of 10 characters down to two actors playing five roles each, but under Larry Biederman’s inventive direction, the disciplined and energetic cast makes it work, showing that behind the masks of the Poet and the Young Wife and the Count and the Actress, etc., it was always really the Man and the Woman.
The primary appeal of Schnitzler’s play has always been its structure and once controversial theme. The structure comprises 10 scenes involving two characters, beginning with the Prostitute (Alyson Weaver) and the Soldier (Ken Barnett), and each subsequent scene uses one of the previous characters and adds a new one, the Soldier and the Parlor Maid, for example, until the story circles back around to one of the initial characters. The once-scandalous theme — that sex and the search for love and connection transcend barriers of class — is now a truism: We’re all in this together, for better or worse.
Weaver evokes a strong sense of sympathy for her series of women who are generally betrayed or disappointed by the men in their lives, from the ill-used Parlor Maid to the Young Wife learning her husband’s double standard of acceptable behavior for men and women. She also excels at depicting cool manipulation, however, such as with the Actress, who has created a persona just as large and forbidding as the Count’s. Barnett is convincing as the selfish Soldier and the smooth Count, but he is more fun and hilarious as the Young Gentleman, endlessly primping and trying to seem masterful, and the Poet, desperately seeking praise. He’s a talented comedian, and his high physical energy adds dynamically to the show.
In each scene something new is tried to keep things fresh. Some ideas work a bit better than others, such as the visually clever and symbolically appropriate idea of having the Actress and the Count address each other’s image projected on a screen.
Steve Barr’s spare but effective set, with lighted wires hanging from the ceiling spelling out which roles the actors are playing, adds to the modern vibe. John Eckert’s lighting illuminates the characters’ psychological makeup, and John Zalewski’s sound design is minimalist but expert, with the clink of utensil on plate coming at just the right moment and the ambient hum of music rising and falling with the characters’ emotions.