Friday, September 6, 2013

89. Review of FINAL ANALYSIS (September 5, 2013)



In 1974, Tom Stoppard’s comedy TRAVESTIES opened. In it the dramatist develops a  playful conceit about an imagined encounter late in World War I involving James Joyce, then writing ULYSSES; Tristan Tzara, the founder of Dadaism; and Lenin, the communist revolutionary, all of whom happened to be in Zurich in 1917 but who probably never actually met. They are enacted as remembered, many years later and somewhat hazily, by a minor official named Henry Carr, a real person who also was there, and who recalls them in the context of an amateur production of THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST. As the Wikipedia essay on TRAVESTIES declares: “Stoppard uses this production and Carr’s mixed feelings surrounding it as a framework to explore art, the war and revolution.” I was reminded of Stoppard’s mostly well-received play by Otho Eskin’s FINAL ANALYSIS, now at the Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre at the Pershing Square Signature Theatre. (It was seen in New York last year at the Abingdon Theatre as part of the Midtown International Theatre Festival.)
Ezra Barnes and Elizabeth Jasicki. Photo: John Quilty.

Mr. Eskin's drama is set in Vienna in 1910, several years before the war, when the city’s residents included such famous figures as philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein (Michael Satow); composer-conductor Gustav Mahler (Ezra Barnes) and his wife, Alma (Elizabeth Jasicki); and the godfather of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud (Gannon McHale), all (except Alma) Jews and all characters in the play. Making things potentially even more interesting was the presence in Vienna that year of another communist revolutionary, Josef Stalin (Tony Naumovski), and an impoverished, would-be artist named Adolf Hitler (Ryan Garbayo). Vienna in 1910 is described in the play as the center of European intellect and culture, but Hitler calls it “a diseased whore.”

FINAL ANALYSIS, which runs 90 intermissionless minutes, lacks anything like the conceptual framework of TRAVESTIES, but it, too, touches on the relationship between art and revolution; the war, however, is seen only as a coming apocalypse. However, the conditions that led to the war are certainly present. In his program note, Mr. Eskin says: “I was drawn to explore the world of Vienna on the eve of World War I: hot-house, perfumed atmosphere in which the upper classes lived in the twilight of the Hapsburg Empire, against a background of crushing poverty, corruption, ethnic hatred and virulent anti-Semitism.” Unhappily, Mr. Eskin has none of Mr. Stoppard’s wit, verbal facility, or imaginative genius, and, instead of an intellectually stimulating confection about how these eminent cultural and political giants might have interacted in some creatively memorable way against this fascinating historical background—Stoppard might have cast them in a Viennese comic opera—FINAL ANALYSIS instead opts for a more or less straightforward series of imaginary meetings, most of which lack the spark of comic or tragic inspiration, and come off seeming, if anything, “banal,” as my theatre guest suggested.

            One other thing that the play has in common with TRAVESTIES is that, for all the drama potentially inherent in its characters, its concern for putting them on stage essentially to express their ideas lacks a dramatic arc. In words that could equally as well apply to FINAL ANALYSIS, Kenneth Tynan wrote about TRAVESTIES that it had successfully created “a layer cake of pastiche,” only to add, “But layer cake, as Marie Antoinette discovered too late, is no substitute for bread. To change the metaphor, the scene resembles a triple-decker bus that isn’t going anywhere. What it lacks, in common with the play as a whole, is the sine qua non of theatre: namely, a narrative thrust that impels the characters, whether farcically or tragically or in any intermediate mode, toward a credible state of crisis, anxiety or desperation.”

            The play’s principal through-line, and the actual situation that inspired the play, is the story of Mahler’s meeting, falling in love with, and marrying the much younger Alma, a great beauty and socialite known for her love affairs, who thinks of Mahler as a possible Nietzschean superman. Eventually, the marriage begins to crumble because of her affairs and his insistence on her total obedience, subjugating her own talents as a composer to his music and career. Mahler (who died of a heart ailment a year later) suffers from bad dreams because of Alma’s infidelity, and seeks help from Freud, whose sessions with him take place in a café; however, in an odd directorial choice, the pair walk about the place instead of sitting down, seemingly strolling through Vienna’s streets. (Mahler allegedly feared the negative backlash about his mental state if he were seen visiting Freud’s office.) This material—which formed the basis of a 2012 German movie called MAHLER ON THE COUCH—is not especially dramatic, at least as shown here, and is supported by a largely disconnected series of scenes affecting the other characters.  

We learn of the young Wittgenstein’s claim that Europe is dying, of his disgust at its rising anti-Semitism, and of his appalling misogynistic beliefs, including the declaration that women are the source of all the disruptive forces in the world. We also watch Stalin’s attempts to proselytize on behalf of Marx’s theories and his willingness to kill as many people as necessary to realize his ideas. We likewise observe the plight of the young Hitler (coyly referred to as the Young Man and never actually named), who was 21 in 1910, and who blames the Jews for his failure as an artist. Not all the characters interact, and very few of the ironies implicit in the mutual presence of these people are explored. One possibility arises when Stalin and Hitler meet, and the future Soviet dictator predicts Hitler’s greatness; the lack of anything in Hitler’s oddball presence to support this prophecy sucks the air out of the scene. Another forced irony occurs toward the play’s end when Hitler, standing on a bridge over the Danube and contemplating death, seeks the advice of Freud, who just happens to be passing by. Aided by Freud’s advice, Hitler launches into a ruthless anti-Semitic diatribe and abandons thoughts of suicide; this allows the play to conclude with the psychiatrist’s: “My God, what have I done?” Since this is a total fiction, and the paradox suggested is an imagined one, the effect is of a bomb that fails to detonate.

            Perhaps a more evocatively theatrical and rhythmically precise directorial approach might have raised the piece to a higher level, but director Ludovica Villar-Hauser’s staging is pedestrian and clumsy. Even the use of period music to tie scenes together is poorly handled; a fuller and more dynamic sound design would have greatly enhanced a play in which music is of such importance. Nor is the production aided by a disappointingly dull cast. Not a single actor comes off as authentic, each one struggling to find some clue to bringing their character to life and to making the stilted dialogue sound real. Why is it that when American actors play characters from other countries, especially cultivated ones, their dialogue seems polished to the point of artificiality and lacking in colloquial contractions and everyday expressions? And, as usual, there’s the old standby approach of resorting to semi-British accents. Only one scene in the play is invested with life; it occurs when Alma strikes up a conversation with Stalin in a café and persuades him to show her his pistol. Suddenly, Ms. Jasicki as Alma stops sounding pretentious and displays a sense of comic but honest pleasure at the excitement she feels with a gun barrel against her belly.   

            Lee Savage’s set offers some basic furniture but barely any scenery so that the rear wall can be used as a projection screen by designer Annie Berman to place us in 1910 Vienna via video and still projections of the city. The principal locale is a café presided over by a formally dressed waiter (Stephen Bradbury), whose narration occasionally helps to set the scene. Joyce Liao’s lighting doesn’t do enough to create the prewar Viennese atmosphere, and the scene of Hitler on the bridge is much too dark. Jenny Green’s costumes are effective at evoking the prewar city but having only a single female character to adorn limits her opportunities.  

            There are simply too many things going on in Mr. Eskin’s work—too many major characters with too many separate ideas—that prevent it from cohering as a unified play. The lack of a conceptual structure for the play’s mixture of historical and imaginary events and its bland acting and direction turn what might have been a fascinating exercise in historical speculation into what, in the final analysis, must be deemed an ambitious failure.

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