“Tales from Red Vienna” is an enthralling narrative that proves the wisdom behind the play’s alcoholic housekeeper Edda Schmidt’s allegation: “It’s easier for stupid people to be in love.”
Written by David Grimm and directed by Kate Whoriskey, “Tales from Red Vienna” is Manhattan Theatre Club’s newest show, and it is a masterpiece. It opens during a violent sex scene and continues to investigate the hardships that women endured after World War I throughout its three acts.
Heléna Altman, played by Tony winner Nina Arianda, is an intelligent widow whose husband was killed two weeks before the Kaiser surrendered. While attempting to keep an image of propriety despite her measly apartment and her budget that removes her from high society, she must prostitute herself to pay the rent. Her wealthy, if gaudy, faux friend, Mutzi von Fessendorf (Tina Benko), stops by Heléna’s living quarters for her birthday and invites her to accompany her on a date with a man she’s having an affair with. Desperate for hope, Heléna agrees to attend and meet the man that Mutzi is pining over.
The individual in question is Béla Hoyos (Michael Esper), a socialist journalist, but the good kind, or so he reassures Mutzi. Irreverent and absolutely intoxicating, he eventually wins Heléna’s love and liberates her from the drudgery that has been her existence since her husband’s death. However, Grimm has an unwelcome surprise in store, and the conclusion of Act III is more reminiscent of “A Doll’s House” than of a romantic fantasy.
In terms of entertainment value, the production delivers. It keeps the audience on the edge of their seats, genuinely concerned about what will happen next. The tension is especially high after the second act, when spectators realize that Grimm is comfortable with making his audience uncomfortable. However, “Tales from Red Vienna” transcends mere amusement—it is poignant, vulnerable, and tender, and it demands a reflection on human nature and the meaning of life.
Arianda is phenomenal as Heléna. She is likeable and relatable despite the foreignness of her era and situation. Beneath the basic elements of her predicament are the universal longing for something better and a desire to break away from the chains that bind her. Whether she is cowering from a predator before he pays her for her body or sighing in ecstasy as she is reawakened from her widow’s nightmare, she is a person with genuine emotions who just wants to survive.
Kathleen Chalfant is also a revelation as Edda, the housekeeper, and she couples comedic relief with heroism to add new dimensions to the play. With advice like, “One should never mix alcohol and patriotism,” she lightens even the darkest scenario. But on top of Grimm’s clever dialogue, Chalfant brings a sass and fire to her role that makes her lovable.
Finally, Esper is enchanting as a twinkling-eyed Hungarian who is as romantic as he is raunchy. He and Arianda share an indubitable chemistry that fills the stage with electricity, and though he has his faults, Béla is everyone’s bachelor number one.
“Tales from Red Vienna” is a force to be reckoned with. Grimm and Manhattan Theatre Club imbue the play with spirit, relevance, and immediacy, underscoring live performance’s role in the technological age.
“Tales from Red Vienna” runs through April 27 at the Manhattan Theatre Club, 131 West 55th St. Student rush tickets are available for $27 the day of the performance.