In adapting a novel to the stage, faithfulness can be a double-edged sword, and “Fraulein Else” at the La Jolla Playhouse demonstrates both blades. It would be hard to imagine an adaptation more faithful to the text or narrative style of Schnitzler’s 1924 stream-of-consciousness novella than actress Francesca Faridany’s version, directed by her husband-collaborator Stephen Wadsworth. Eyes closed, it sounds mighty close to a reading of the book, with Faridany voicing Else’s interior monologue with an impressive, increasingly breathless pace. On the other hand, Schnitzler’s minor-key tragedy becomes much more comic here, as the character of Else never quite seems to be taken seriously. It’s certainly an entertaining showcase for Faridany’s talent, although it’s not especially involving emotionally.
“Fraulein Else” takes place at a spa in the mountains and the stage is split into forward and rear sections, divided by a transparent scrim by set designer Thomas Lynch. It’s a clever and attractive set, an expressionistic landscape rather than a realistic place.
In this luscious setting, the beautiful, “high-spirited,” 19-year-old Else spends her days playing tennis, selecting the right dress for elegant dinners and evaluating the foibles and potential sexual shenanigans of her fellow high-society folk, particularly her handsome cousin Paul (Michael Tisdale) and his married paramour, Cissy (Lauren Lovett).
An urgent letter from home brings an abrupt end to Else’s carefree time. Else’s father is in a jam due to gambling debts — a frequent occurrence — and might well be hauled off to jail. His fate rests with Else, whom her mother (Mary Baird) tasks with requesting financial assistance from Herr Von Dorsday (Julian Lopez-Morillas), an older, unattractive friend of the family vacationing at the spa.
Fortunately, Von Dorsday has always had a certain, shall we say, fondness for Else, and he’s willing to help; unfortunately, in return he wants to see Else naked. (He’s an art dealer, after all, and thus in the business of exchanging money for the right to look at objects of beauty.)
Else’s dilemma sends her reeling, her mind a muddle of confusion as her healthy young libido, her repulsion at Von Dorsday and the moral code that allows some careful transgressions but not others all do battle, with her sanity the loser.
But while Else is descending into classic Freudian hysteria — Freud and Schnitzler knew each other and have often been compared — Faridany is making us laugh with Else’s flights of fantasy. When she undresses and does a silly dance across the stage, she’s not so much depicting Else’s inner state as making fun of it. Despite the fact that this show is all Else — the other characters are mere accessories to her — it somehow doesn’t feel like it’s told from her point of view.
The problem actually runs to the core. Faridany has selected and written a part for herself, and she’s miscast. It’s not that Faridany doesn’t have all the talent in the world, but she can’t convey the one thing this piece is most lacking, the sense of Else as a budding young woman of 19, part adolescent, part adult. A child trying to behave like an adult is one thing; an adult behaving as a child — the impression here — is something else.
That said, her performance is still impressive. Ultimately, our attention is not on the tale but on the telling, not on Else’s plight but on Faridany’s display.