You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Off Broadway Review: ‘Tales from Red Vienna’

Even with dynamic Tony winner Nina Arianda in the lead role, David Grimm's new play starts strong but loses its way.


Nina Arianda; Tina Benko; Kathleen Chalfant; Michael Esper; Michael Goldsmith; Lucas Hall.

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.

Popular on Variety

Off Broadway Review: 'Tales from Red Vienna'

Manhattan Theater Club; 299 seats; $95 top.  Opened March 18, 2014.  Reviewed March 14.  Running time:  TWO HOURS, 20 MIN.


A Manhattan Theater Club presentation of a production commissioned by the Huntington Theater Company and developed at Center Stage of a play in three acts by David Grimm.


Directed by Kate Whoriskey.  Sets, John Lee Beatty; costumes, Anita Yavich; lighting, Peter Kaczorowski; sound, Rob Milburn & Michael Bodeen; hair & wigs, Tom Watson; fight direction, Thomas Schall; production stage manager, Bryce McDonald.


Nina Arianda; Tina Benko; Kathleen Chalfant; Michael Esper; Michael Goldsmith; Lucas Hall.

More Legit

  • Secret Derren Brown review

    Broadway Review: 'Derren Brown: Secret'

    Audiences love to be fooled, whether it’s with clever plotting with a twist, the arrival of an unexpected character or even a charming flimflam man with a British accent. The latter is Derren Brown, and he’s entertaining audiences for a limited run at the Cort Theatre, where he is playing head-scratching mind games and other [...]

  • Matthew Broderick, Sarah Jessica ParkerNew York

    Matthew Broderick and Sarah Jessica Parker to Reunite on Broadway for 'Plaza Suite'

    Real-life couple Matthew Broderick and Sarah Jessica Parker are hitting the Broadway stage again for a reboot of the late Neil Simon’s 1968 play “Plaza Suite.” The staging will mark the Broadway directorial debut of Tony award-winner John Benjamin Hickey. Set in New York City’s Plaza Hotel in Suite 719, “Plaza Suite” is comprised of [...]

  • Derren Brown

    Listen: Derren Brown Spills His Broadway 'Secret'

    Derren Brown has spent a lot of his career performing magic shows on theater stages — but he’ll be the first to tell you that magic usually doesn’t make for great theater. Listen to this week’s podcast below: “If you’re a magician of any sort, you can make stuff happen with a click of your [...]

  • A Very Expensive Poison review

    London Theater Review: 'A Very Expensive Poison'

    Vladimir Putin owes his power to the stage. The president’s closest advisor trained as a theatre director before applying his art to politics, and ran Russia like a staged reality, spinning so many fictions that truth itself began to blur. By scrambling the story and sowing confusion, Putin could exert absolute control. The long-awaited latest [...]

  • Betrayal review Tom Hiddleston

    Broadway Review: 'Betrayal' With Tom Hiddleston

    and Zawe Ashton as a long-married couple and Charlie Cox as the secret lover. Director Jamie Lloyd’s impeccable direction — now on Broadway, after a hot-ticket London run — strips Pinter’s 1978 play to its bare bones: the excruciating examination of the slow death of a marriage.  It’s a daring approach, leaving the characters nowhere [...]

  • Jayne Houdyshell arrives at the 71st

    'The Music Man' Revival Adds Four Tony Winners to Broadway Cast

    Tony Award-winners Jayne Houdyshell, Jefferson Mays, Marie Mullen and Shuler Hensley will join stars Hugh Jackman and Sutton Foster in the upcoming Broadway revival of “The Music Man.” In “The Music Man,” Jackman will play con-man Harold Hill, who arrives in a small, fictional Iowa town called River City and urges the townsfolk to start [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content