Desire is an eternal flame that casts a wicked glow in “Zerline’s Tale,” a seductive but ultimately slight memory play based on a short story from Austrian writer Hermann Broch’s book “The Guiltless,” adapted by Jeremy Sams. Still, there’s nothing like a tantalizing passion-versus-morality play, and this English-language premiere gets a handsome Hartford Stage production, along with a transformative performance by Elizabeth Ashley, who summons ghosts of her own in the telling.
It’s a juicy role famously played by Jeanne Moreau in Europe in the 1980s. Here, Ashley casts her own powerful spell as Zerline, a crafty old servant woman who recounts to an entranced listener an upstairs/downstairs story of desire, revenge and murder.
Set in 1923 inflation-ridden Germany, the once-affluent and aristocratic household in which Zerline works is now reduced to taking in tenants. The latest is a handsome young visitor simply known as the Man (Jon David Casey), who is the target for Zerline’s cautionary tale, one she parcels out with just the right amount of detail and tease as she goes about ostensibly cleaning his room.
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She first catches his interest by referring to the widowed baroness’s “bastard daughter,” whose mysterious ways might even have implications for the boarder.
“I’ve intrigued you, haven’t I?” asks the old and arthritic Zerline to the man of few words, played with nicely measured reactions by Casey. She could be speaking to the audience, too, as Ashley works the room in every sense of the word. She is solicitous, playful, demanding, self-absorbed, provocative and ultimately transfixing as she recalls the passions, both grand and petty, of her prime. The old Zerline is a tough, rough, unsentimental peasant who has no illusions about the ways of class and privilege. But memories of sex and sin are seen in a different light.
Watch the decades dissolve as Ashley dreamily, hungrily, sensually tells of the time when she planned to bed — and perhaps even wed — the lover of the baroness, who fathered the illegitimate daughter. Delusion and desire conspire in a scene that is the work’s high point in storytelling and performance.
When murder enters the picture, things get complicated for all involved, including the baroness’s husband, an upstanding and noble judge who appears to stand above mere matters of the flesh. Up until then, he is a minor figure in the story, but his character becomes a significant factor in the play’s intertwining moral universe.
A further reveal at the end gives the story an intriguing narrative and thematic twist. But its psychological notion of saints and sinners lacks sufficient heft to totally sell the play, despite the best efforts of the star, helmer Michael Wilson and a first-rate design team.
Alexander Dodge designs a finely detailed set that draws aud into the confines of the tenant’s faded-elegant room while conjuring up a mysterious beyond as Zerline enters her dark and dangerous past. Howell Binkley’s lighting and John Gromada’s intoxicating music also add dimension to the haunted tale.