Nina Arianda certainly knows how to make an entrance. For her Tony Award-winning role in “Venus in Furs” — her last appearance on the New York boards — she blew onstage in a gust of comic energy. In “Tales from Red Vienna,” David Grimm’s drama about crumbling social norms in post-WWI Vienna, she bursts in like a hunted animal. Shrouded in widow’s weeds, the dynamic thesp collapses in an attitude of abject despair that she holds for a very long stage minute in this production from Manhattan Theater Club. It’s an arresting tableau for a play that begins in breathless silence, but ends with such a groan that not even Arianda can make a graceful exit.
Credit scribe Grimm with illuminating a little-known but fascinating fact about the wives of European soldiers who died on the battlefields of World War I. Those who couldn’t find another husband or lacked an independent fortune of their own often found themselves destitute — many so desperate they turned to prostitution. In Vienna, one of the most civilized cities in Europe, the police pronounced the practice “a social epidemic.”
Conditions were especially dire among the upper classes, an elite circle whose aristocratic wives like Helena Altman (Arianda) were ill-equipped and quite unprepared to make their own living. “She’s the fragile sort,” a friend says of this delicate creature. “Wasn’t raised to survive on her own.”
The play’s first scene, thrillingly staged by helmer Kate Whoriskey, in which the humiliated widow wordlessly submits to a rough customer, makes it quite clear how Helena has been supporting herself since her young officer husband fell at Ypres. More of her sad story is illuminated when the lights come up on John Lee Beatty’s meticulously detailed set of the shabby apartment that she shares with her pragmatic housekeeper, Edda, whose wit and resilience (cheerfully supplied by Kathleen Chalfant) keep her mistress sane. Except for a few pieces of fine furniture rescued from the grand house she lost, the rooms are almost bare.
The precarious nature of Helena’s existence is dramatically heightened when Mutzi von Fessendorf (Tina Benko), the only friend from her former life who hasn’t cut her dead, comes to call. Dressed to kill (in one of several scrumptious costumes executed by Anita Yavich) and played with exquisite heartlessness by Benko, this smiling sadist has come to deliver a choice piece of cruel gossip about a once dear friend of theirs. It seems that poor Lotte Grunwald, another destitute war widow, has been rousted by the police — and outed in all the newspapers — for soliciting men.
The secret of Helena’s illicit profession is almost exposed when Mutzi pays another social call (necessitating another sumptuous costume) to invite her to a concert. After months of deep mourning, Helena is starved for culture and accepts the invitation. But the social outing turns into a nightmare for her when the male companion who escorts the ladies to the concert turns out to be the client who used her so brutally in the opening scene.
Arianda is much too fiery and intelligent an actress to play the victim role for long. She blooms accordingly in the second act, when another beautifully realized set by Beatty places Helena in a picturesque graveyard and at her husband’s grave, rebuffing that persistent client.
As it turns out, Bela Hoyos (Michael Esper) is no savage brute — despite informing Helena that “the greater your disgust, the more I wanted you” — but a respectable, socially well-connected journalist and a total charmer. Being a Hungarian intellectual and an impassioned Marxist socialist adds to his exotic appeal. Esper does his best by this impossibly romantic figure, but it’s a stretch. And while Grimm puts civilized words in his mouth, the scribe is no Tom Stoppard, who had more success with romanticizing politics in “Rock ‘n’ Roll,” his 2006 drama about the 1968 Prague Spring.
While this graveside seduction scene gives both thesps an opportunity to kick up their heels in a romantic dance of wit and wills, it drastically shifts the focus of the play. Once it becomes clear that the besotted Bela has no intention of exposing Helena, the theme turns from the desperate plight of war widows in a postwar world to a study of Viennese society in the 1920s, when the war-weary populace was flirting with radical politics, recreational drugs, and all that jazz. An interesting era, to be sure, if no 1920s WeimarBerlin. But even that sharp plot turn leads to a dead end in the third act, when the play decides that it wants to be a weepy melodrama after all.