Bonnie Fraser, Christopher Ryan, Caitlin Wise
and Jed Peterson in a scene from Flirtation
(Photo credit: Jacob J. Goldberg)
Possibly Arthur Schnitzler’s most famous play after La Ronde and Antol, the fin-de-siècle Flirtation (Liebelei) is a love story and a tragedy, as well as an indictment of Imperial Viennese society. Although highly admired in Europe where it has had two major film versions, it is rarely performed in the United States. Revived as part of Marvell Rep’s winter repertory project, “Desire & Delusion: 3 Plays about Sex, Fate, Love & Honor,” artistic director Lenny Leibowitz has given it an elegant, graceful and lovely production, though not all of the performances seem to be quite in focus. The production uses the polished, standard translation by Carl R. Mueller, with a few minor deletions.
Like Schnitzler’s better known plays, its hero Fritz is a wealthy young Viennese man about town, in this case a dashing army officer, who is having an affair with a married woman. To take his mind off this risky affair, his friend Theo, another army officer, has introduced him to two working-class girls, Mitzi and Christine. Theo is sweet on Mitzi and he hopes that Christine will divert Fritz. While Fritz is attracted to Christine, the innocent young girl in turn falls deeply in love with this man who changes his love partners often. Although Fritz returns her love, the husband of his married mistress discovers the affair and challenges him to a duel. The outcome has tragic consequences for all the characters. The play can be exactly defined by the phrase, “sex, fate, love and honor.”
Leibowitz’s production is consistently stylish and graceful. His entire cast is well versed in the kind of drawing room manner required. However, some of the performances have not achieved all of the subtlety needed for this sophisticated and understated drama. While Jed Peterson’s Fritz has a high polish, it is not made clear whether is he toying with Christine or has really fallen in love with her. As Christine, Bonnie Fraser is a lovely, innocent heroine. However, in the first half of the play she has a kind of querulous approach as she tries to get Fritz to reveal more about his life; in the second half, she is suddenly commanding, imposing and mature, without having previously suggested that she was capable of this. Nor are we entirely sure of why Fritz has fallen in love with her, other than that she is pretty and entirely different from his sophisticated mistress.
The rest of the cast are much more assured and confident in their roles. Christopher Ryan is quite smart and jaunty as Theodore, the army officer who lives entirely for his pleasures with no concern about how he affects other people. Caitlin Wise’s attractive, flirtatious and debonair Mitzi is pitch perfect. Rita Harvey makes a great deal out of her role as Christine’s landlady, gossipy and malicious in a very artful manner. Sky Seals as the outraged husband is quite scary without damaging the graceful stylishness of the production. In the hands of Kevin Gilmartin, Christine’s father, a violinist at the opera, is a knowing and urbane gentleman who understands the ways of the world.
Susan Nester’s costumes take us back to the turn of the last century as well as using colors that define the characters. Using many of the same scenic elements as in Marvell Rep’s world premiere production of its adaptation of Schnitzler’s Night Games, Kenichi Takahashi has successfully suggested the elegant bachelor pad of Fritz, as well as the more lower-middle-class dwelling of Christine and her father, with a deep wine-colored red the dominant hue in each. The soft lighting by Nicholas Houfek is in keeping with the charming style of the Leibowitz’s overall staging.
One of the great European playwrights and the leading interpreter of Austrian culture before the wars, Arthur Schnitzler, with his subtle understanding of the ways of the human heart pre-Freud, deserves to be seen on our stages more often. Flirtation represents a moral tale which does not allow its message to overpower its simple story. Lenny Leibowitz’s revival for Marvell Rep is always nimble, always tasteful, allowing the story to take center stage. While some of the performances seem a bit unfocused, the actors may grow into their roles with more performances.
Flirtation (performed in rotating repertory with Arthur Schnitzler’s Night Games and Secrets: The Untold Story of Sigmund Freud & Carl Jung (through March 17, 2013)
Marvell Rep at TBG Theatre, 312 W. 36th Street, 3rd Floor, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 866-811-4111 or visit http://www.marvellrep.com
Running time: 90 minutes including an intermission