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The Lonely Way (Der Einsame Weg)

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Bruised Mint is best saved for non-theatrical recipes. Rightly considered one of New York's most valuable institutions for its work in unearthing and reinvigorating lost stage works, the Mint Theater Company has scored a rare but almost complete misfire with its new production of Arthur Schnitzler's The Lonely Way.

One can easily understand the eagerness of Jonathan Bank, the production's director and the Mint's artistic director, to tackle the play, the original title of which is Der einsame Weg. After all, the company's 2003 production of Schnitzler's Far and Wide was an artistic and popular success that firmly suggested Schnitzler deserves credit in this country than for more than just having written La Ronde and Anatol.

But while it's possible that Schnitzler's work on Der einsame Weg is similarly worthy of attention, it's impossible to tell from this stilted and self-absorbed production. It's dripping with pretension and "high theatre" production values - including an overwhelming predominance of black (courtesy of set designer Vicki R. Davis) and the presence of Frank Gehry-designed furniture - designed to make the play more relevant to 2005 (the program insists the play is set in the Vienna of the present) but instead lock the work in an alternate universe in which not a single thing convinces.

That's a shame, as the story should resonate with today's audiences as clearly as with those of a century ago: The central characters are so unable to connect with each other that they're finding themselves living their lives spiritually, if not physically, alone. Chief among these is Julian Fichtner (Ronald Guttman), a fading famous artist with a secret in his past that could affect the whole Wegrat family: ill mother Gabrielle (Sherry Skinker), her husband the art professor (George Morfogen), their brooding daughter Johanna (Constance Tarbox), their military son Felix (Eric Alperin). Writer and Wegrat acquaintance Stephan von Sala (Jordan Lage), retired actress Irene Herms (Lisa Bostnar), and visiting doctor Franz Reumann (John Leonard Thompson) are hiding their own secrets, as well.

It's easy to see how the intricacies of these relationships, which are soon sewn into a patchwork quilt of betrayals and deceptions of the social and sexual varieties, could provoke and intrigue when played out against the backdrop of upper-class turn-of-the-20th-century Vienna. But the scripted dangers of disease (which threaten to ravage at least two characters' lives) and archaeological digs seem quaint, even silly when they're supposed to be legitimate contemporary concerns; more correctly viewed as death sentences a hundred years ago, today these would register as at best extended annoyances.

This all gives the actors little to play, and Davis's sparse, suffocating sets and Henry Shaffer's drab costumes allow them few opportunities to round out their characterizations. Only Morfogen turns in an acceptable performance, balancing befuddlement and honest concern as the professor's surrounding latticework of family and friends collapses around him. Of the others, Guttman struggles to maintain any authority or humanity in his difficult, central role; Tarbox is distant almost to the point of being in another theater; Alperin looks, sounds, and behaves a decade too old for his bratty, confused character; and Lage seems to have no grasp on anything he says or does.

That's somewhat understandable given the translation that Bank and Margret Schaefer have provided. The words the characters speak lack any and all vivacity and ornamentation, and have been reduced to a series of pithy phrases and unengaging declarations that might advance plot but do little to delineate or energize specific characters. In a two-page program note, Schaefer defends her work with Bank, which, when compared to Schnitzler's original version, she considers "leaner, more direct, less leisurely."

But sometimes it's possible to trim too much fat or mistake it for muscle, and that seems to be what's happened here - a bit of leisure isn't always a bad thing. The New York premiere of a play by a writer of Schnitzler's level deserves something more in keeping with what the author himself envisioned; instead, the script Bank and Schaefer have translated (and which will be included for publication in the Mint's upcoming Schnitzler collection, Arthur Schnitzler Reclaimed) lacks the vibrancy and specific life that characterizes Schnitzler's work in general and made the Mint's earlier Far and Wide so delectable.

Perhaps it's not surprising that this production is so thoroughly mired in black. When all the color is taken away, what else can possibly remain?

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Mint Theatre Company
The Lonely Way (Der Einsame Weg)
Through March 27
Running Time: 2 hours, 20 minutes with one intermission
Mint Theatre Company, 311 West 43rd Street, 5th Floor
Schedule and Tickets: 212.315.0231