Tales From Red Vienna, David Grimm's play now unfolding at Manhattan Theatre Club's City Center Stage I, takes place in 1920 in Austria's capital — at the dawning of its social democracy — and concerns the effects of World War I on women with newly honed survival skills, struggling to move on, sometimes alone, as best they can.
Casting director Nancy Piccione did her duty brilliantly staffing the play with award-winners of the stainless-steel variety: Nina Arianda, who took a Tony her last time on Broadway in MTC's Venus in Fur; Tina Benko, who got an Actors' Equity Award doing Titania in Julie Taymor's A Midsummer Night's Dream; and Kathleen Chalfant, who swept up just about every other prize — the Lortel, Obie, Outer Critics Circle, Drama Desk, Drama League, Connecticut Critics Circle, and Los Angeles' Ovation awards — for her brilliant portrayal of a terminally ill professor in Margaret Edson's Wit.
Hard times call for harsh measures, and stout-hearted dames are called for here. One thing that the war costs Arianda's character, Heléna Altman, is a husband. Another thing is financial security. Coming from and accustomed to a privileged life, she drifts gradually, grudgingly, into what the play hazily refers to as "an illicit underworld." The casting call sheet was a bit blunter about it: Nudity required.
"I wouldn't call it prostitution," said Arianda, rising in sympathetic defense of her character. "She's a woman who moves in a chaotic world and does what she must in order to live. She's a fighter. She's not one to feel sorry for herself. She's a survivor."
Chalfant, a versitile and groundbreaking stage actor who earned a Tony nod in Angels in America, claims a good overview of the other characters because her character is twice as old as anybody else on stage. "That means she's known the two lead women all their lives, and, though they're of another class, they don't intimidate her at all. It's a world of young people because it's a world of people just affected by the war.
"My character is Nina's housekeeper and watchdog — that's my job: To look out for her, make sure she's okay and nobody's taking advantage of her," she continued. "I'm the wisecracking confidante — the part that used to be played by Eve Arden or Thelma Ritter. I just said that in an interview, and the interviewer didn't know who either one of them was. I said, 'Never mind. It's an honorable tradition.'
"I like to make people laugh, but I think it would be reductive to call this a comedy. It has a very fierce spine. David Grimm writes pastiche plays, and this one seems to be a pastiche play — but I suspect it's quite close to David's Hungarian background because there's kind of a basic darkness in his spirit, I think. Because it reminds you of a Viennese farce — something like "The Shop Around the Corner" — you think that they are stock characters, but the 'stock characters' don't fulfill their stock roles. The women in it are quite independent in ways that genuinely surprise you all the way through the play. No one treally behaves exactly the way you expect them to behave."
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