Sunday, January 13, 2008

Say Goodnight, Vienna

So, I dragged my son with me last (Saturday) night, and went to the city (New York City, that is) to attend a reading of a play written by my friend and Fordham University colleague Meir Ribalow (the subject of a previous blog post). The name of the play was Goodnight, Vienna, and it was presented by the New River Dramatists in association with The Players Second Wednesday Workshop. That probably doesn't mean a whole hell of a lot to you, so let me explain that the New River Dramatists is a workshop that Meir runs every summer down in North Carolina, and he is also connected to The Players Second Wednesday Workshop, and more on The Players in a moment.

The publicity describes the plays as follows:

Lenin and Stalin visit Sigmund Freud in 1924 Vienna; they are joined by John Dillinger and Clara Bow, while Amelia Earhart practices crash-landing outside. By the writer of Sundance , hailed as: "Brilliantly funny . ” ( London Time Out); “Superb. A jewel." (Irish Times); "A brilliant piece. A delight. Don't miss." ( Dublin Evening Press); "Funniest comedy in a long time. Exhilarating." ( Dublin Evening Herald); "Mordantly brilliant. A dramatic voice of exquisite originality. Highly original. Amazing." (Creek magazine); "Even Mel Brooks never achieved the degree of send-up which Ribalow puts over in this play." (Irish Hibernia ); "Magical, provocative, irresistible, and funny." (KVOD Radio); "A revelation." (Irish Sunday Independent)
The play itself was quite entertaining, a kind of postmodern/pop/theater of the absurd as these five figures from history are caricatured and made to interact in all sorts of surprising and amusing ways, and utter any number of comedic anachronisms. It all takes place in Sigmund Freud's office in Vienna in 1924, from whence the title.

Dillinger is a psycho
with anger management problems, not surprisingly, but sexy, sexually liberated Clara Bow has him wrapped around her finger--she's his girlfriend in the play, but she plays the field it seems. And he's brought her to Vienna and wants to force Freud to cure her (of what it's not clear, but what is clear is that he needs treatment more than she). Freud is annoyed at the unwanted interruption, and has a scheduled appointment with Lenin, who wants to know why his revolution has gone sour. But with Lenin unconscious (don't ask), he has a session with Bow, while Earhart joins them, rhapsodizing about the pleasures of flying with childlike innocence. It's not until the end of the first act that Stalin shows up, and much of the second act revolves around his totalitarian statements about power and control, and the others' responses to his attempt to dominate the situate and drag Lenin back to the Soviet Union with him).

I was pleased to see my son laughing quite a bit during the reading, and praising the play during intermission and afterwards. For me, the one of the biggest surprises was the fact that
in the end Stalin emerges as the voice of the contemporary world, our world, promising things to come like genocide, and malls of all things (to the puzzlement of Freud). In retrospect, this makes sense in that Bow was a star of silent film, Dillinger was a gangster from the Prohibition Era, Freud was a Victorian, Earhart was a lone eagle type, and Lenin was something of an idealist and rationalist. Stalin's new (back in the 1920s) cynicism is still with us, Meir is quite right, while the others all represent a bygone era of innocence and optimism.

The other surprise, for me, was the fact that Clara Bow emerged as the central character in the ensemble, the most interesting one of all, not to mention the one with the most lines (I am pretty sure), and the one who interacted with the others the most. Thinking about it, she is the least well known of the bunch, and being a silent movie star, the least vivid in terms of personality. She is mainly remembered for her image as a sex symbol, the original "It Girl"--for more, you can check out the wikipedia article on Clara Bow. As a sex symbol, she speaks out in favor of sexual pleasure in a manner quite familiar to anyone who's lived through the sexual revolution of the sixties and seventies. As such, her comments are entirely familiar and sensible to us, as shocking as they may have been, even for the Roaring Twenties. She also goes beyond the one-dimensionality of the other characters, who are stereotypes based on their historical images, played for comedic effect. Bow starts out as a bimbo, but over the course of the play reveals hidden depths and intelligence. She also carries the most important, life-affirming message of the group, although in the end it's Earhardt who embodies that message through flight.

Oh, and one more surprise--I had never been to a reading before, and expected that the actors would just be sitting and reading the script. It was a pleasant surprise to find that this was a staged reading, so everyone stood while they were "onstage" and while they didn't move about (there was a narrator reading stage directions), they did actually act, performing by facial expressions and gestures. It kind of reminded me of the old radio days, when sitcoms, soaps, and adventure shows, dramas, and the like, were performed in front of live audiences and to microphones, the actors typically in costume. For the reading, the actors did dress the part, not elaborately, but enough to create an impact.

Actually, I was very impressed with the casting. Although none of the actors were well known, they all fit their parts quite well visually and vocally. Alana O'Brien put on a superb performance as Clara Bow, which as I mentioned was the most important role in the play. Piter Marek played Dillinger with great energy, quite manic at times, and overall the funniest role--his performance was my son's favorite, I should add. William Esper did a good job of filling out the familiar figure of Sigmund Freud, German accent and all. I was very impressed with Chris Ceraso as Lenin, he had a good Russian accent, and managed to look the part of the iconic leader. Amelia Earhardt is more open to interpretation, and Laura Heisler played her as naive and idealistic, and almost a monomaniac about flying, making her the funniest character next to Dillinger. Nick Berg Barnes
had an interesting challenge in playing Stalin, who actually was not a Russian but a Georgian (which Lenin mentioned in the play), and he did give him an accent that was not quite Russian, but more importantly he did a fine job of bringing to life a character whose role in the play was mainly to make rhetorical pronouncements and threats about the future.

So, there you have it, my first foray as a theater critic! Hey, why not? What do you think?

Okay, so I don't do play the part of the snooty, snobby thay-ah-tahr critic so well. But I am very appreciative to Meir for the invite, and not only to see the performance, but also just to have the opportunity to go to the Players Club. I have attended other events there courtesy of Meir, but it was great to be able to show my son the place. It's like a museum, as the saying goes, but in this case quite literally so as the walls are lined with portraits and other memorabilia related to 19th and 20th century stage actors. And the place was founded by Edwin Booth, an actor like his brother John Wilkes Booth--Edwin was horrified at his brother's assassination of Abraham Lincoln.

And for once, I'm just going to send you over to the other website to explore, if you're interested in learning more about the Players Club, it really is fascinating so I recommend taking a look, okay, so just go ahead and click it: PLAYERS.

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