From Sublime, Erotic Vienna To Mel Brooks' Chopped Liver
Arts & Entertainment Review
May 27, 2002
By John Heilpern
I cannot recommend too highly Martha Clarke's Vienna: Lusthaus (Revisited) at the New York Theatre Workshop downtown. Based on Ms. Clarke's landmark 1986 production, this lovely, erotic 70-minute exploration of the unconscious world of Vienna at the beginning of the 20th century is itself a seductive dream. In all of its exquisite simplicity and inconsolable grief, the piece is beautiful and utterly complete.
Ms. Clarke's dreamscape of a Vienna waltzing into the nightmare of a world at war isn't an academic exercise. We ourselves are now at the start of a new century where an imagined innocence is found teetering on the edge of catastrophe. Yet from the start, I was surprised by the extraordinary, imaginative delicacy of the piece. Ms. Clarke, who trained as a dancer, has firstly created a most wonderful synthesis of movement, music, text and design. We're lucky to find a collaboration as fine as the work of her composer, Richard Peaslee, the fragmentary, hallucinatory text of Charles L. Mee, and the empty white space and ravishing period costumes of Robert Israel. All, with the light and Expressionist shadow of Paul Gallo, have created a small masterpiece.
What defines Vienna: Lusthaus most is its erotic lyricism. Thirty-two brief vignettes and images are conjured up from the void. A scrim gently turns us into discreet voyeurs of this waking dream, where Arthur Schnitzler (of La Ronde) cowers before his mother and all harmony dissolves into chaos. There are naked lovers, a fondled horse and boy, skaters, a whip, peacock military men and pretty women, a memory, a beating, a suicide, fragments from the casebooks of Freud and images based on the paintings of Gustav Klimt and Egon Shiele.
Not to worry if we don't get all the references. We're not meant to. The piece exists luminously in its own right. It isn't self-consciously arty, as we might have feared; it isn't studied. On the contrary, its wit and grace and rhythmic pulse compel a sensual response. Nor is Vienna: Lusthaus primarily verbal. How often, I wonder, do those surprising, unexpected guests in our own dreams literally talk to us? (Yet they seem to.) All dreams are short stories in their own way. So there are stories told of an incredulous opera fan relating how, at a performance of Fidelio, his nephew flew through the air and pulled out two of his teeth; an aunt who, in strawberry season, covers her face with crushed fruit and walks forever and ever; and a man, standing on the banks of the Danube, who sees that in a great drenching storm, the rain falls on only one half of the river, leaving the other half and its bank in dazzling sunlight--he's standing in a miracle. But when a woman shakes a dead soldier back to life on the battlefield--shakes and shakes and shakes him so desperately that she might be killing him--no miracle takes place.
Vienna: Lusthaus is where prettiness and chivalry collide with eroticism and war, where playful sexual imagery transforms into repressed fascism let loose. I've never seen anything quite like it, and few theater pieces so confidently, beautifully spare. There's no use of video, no tricks or effects. Its simplicity is naked and delights us the most. Nothing could be done differently or better. The ensemble of actors, dancers and musicians is just perfect. Martha Clarke and her team have created one of the seminal theater events of our time.
Mit a Zetz
To go from Vienna: Lusthaus to The Producers is to go from caviar to chopped liver. But we are not cultural snobs here, except when it's essential. Besides, we have mad Franz Liebkind's second-act neo-Nazi "Haben Sie Gehoert Das Deutsche Band?" to keep the memory warm, mit a zetz, mit a zap, mit a zing.
The cast replacements in the lead roles have brought about a revisit to the show that has given me such vaudevillian pleasure on more than one occasion this past year. My fellow critics have all rolled over wagging their tails to declare The Producers as good as ever. If only it were. Obviously, everyone wishes the two talented replacements the best. I'm afraid that if the show were as good as ever, Brad Oscar would be Nathan Lane, Steven Weber would be Matthew Broderick, and Christmas would have arrived early on Broadway this year.
The arrogant producers of The Producers have provoked a public-relations disaster, putting unnecessary pressure on a show that seemed destined to run for a century. You will have read that the performer who originally took over the role of Max Bialystock from Mr. Lane was the award-winning British character actor Henry Goodman. He was a first-rate Shylock at the Royal National Theatre. He was in every aspect a bold, unexpected choice for The Producers--the very opposite of Nathan Lane. I would have loved to have seen him in the role to see what he could do with it, what he could re-invent. But Mr. Goodman was fired after 32 performances (before he could open to the critics). Apparently he wasn't getting the laughs, although he was getting the standing ovations. The sweetheart producers of the show--who invented the $480 Broadway ticket out of the kindness of their hearts--didn't trouble to inform Mr. Goodman personally of the decision. Nor did the director, Susan Stroman. It was left to his agent in London to call him with the news as he came offstage after a matinee.
Brad Oscar, who was the understudy for Mr. Lane and for Mr. Goodman--while shining in the show in the role of Franz, the Nazi pigeon-fancier and amateur dramatist--then took over the role of Max Bialystock for keeps. He's giving them what they really wanted in the first place: a Nathan Lane impersonation. Mr. Oscar is cloning the star's original performance too conscientiously.
I'll whisper this: Nathan Lane is also a clone of Nathan Lane. The star more or less gives the same broad performance whatever show he appears in. But the role of lovable-shyster theater producer Max Bialystock could have been made for him, and he relished Max's outrageous comic size. Though Mr. Lane has a full head of hair, for example, he styled it as a comb-over in tribute to Zero Mostel; though he lost a lot of weight during the production, he deliberately kept his clothes baggy. But the gifted Mr. Oscar looks on the young side for Max and has yet to cut loose and find his own character.
Mr. Weber, the former star of the long-running TV series Wings, doesn't quite ignite as the eternally panicked accountant Leo Bloom, though he's charming enough. One wishes that he would impersonate the nebbish less and seize the emotional territory more.
The production still catches fire gloriously with the manic high camp of the great Gary Beach as Roger DeBris and the equally great Roger Bart as Carmen Ghia. They had me in stitches, as always. I tip my hat to their astonishing comic energy and talent. With Cady Huffman as the bombshell Ulla, they're the indispensable engine room of the show, and I trust the three of them are being rewarded with a king's ransom. You feel your pulse start to race with their entrances. When that happens, all is well with the showbiz world, and Mr. Oscar and Mr. Weber begin to relax more, too, as the audience warms to their performances.
The production itself--the Mel Brooks Show--is still in good shape after a year. As good as ever? Alas, you can't go home again and, as lovers say, it depends what you mean by "ever."
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