TALES FROM THE VIENNA WOODS - At the Arena through November 19.
It isn't schmaltzy Vienna in Odon von Horvath's 1931 play, "Tales From the Vienna Woods," which is Arena Stage's opening production of the season. It's punk Vienna.
For sheer sleaziness of human behavior, modern punk does not compare with this vintage. The greedy sexual maulings of couples who despise each other, the empty curses of families who don't even care enough to hate, and, most of all, the obscene charade of morality and manners are decadence in depth. Brecht, with his respect for the indestructible human spirit, is not quite it. But you can see it in the George Grosz show now at the Hirshhorn Collection.
Even the light fixtures in this production are decadent. Have you ever seen a decadent lightbulb? These are limply misshapen, hanging in sagging clusters, the bitter parody of a floral chandelier.
From Zack Brown's incredible settings, in which Vienna's Art Deco-over-baroque seems to grow malignantly from all directions, to the simplest picnic parties that seem to be contaminated with a poisonous communal hangover, to Halo Wines' bitterly funny portrayed of a marked-down sophisticate, with smoke in the nostrils and underwear trailing along the ground, the play is a powerful stylistic whole.
Unfortunately, all this lavishness has been used to deck out a weak play. That, too, is perhaps in the spirit of candy-box satin and frills over rotted delicacies.
"Tales From the Vienna Woods," which has been markedly in and out of vogue over the decades, does not come across as a political statement any deeper than "Bring on the flood." It's a tawdry story of endless betrayals, in which the chief victim is, indeed, a young virgin seduced and abandoned, but this is not innocence betrayed. Her innoncence, probably like her virginity, is a mere technicality.
Every character is a variation on the same theme, although the actors' deft embodiments are individually fascinating, such as Richard Bauer's seducer, a sort of unsuccessful old-world attempt at Damon Runyonism, Sarah Felcher as an evil Mother Courage and, especially, Wines' shop-matron approximation of a Blue Angel.
That there are models in other dramas for each - and David Chambers' perfect-tone direction often seems to slip off into "Cabaret" - is no reflection on their contributions. With caricatures rather than characters, and an attitude rather than a story, there simply was not the kind of viable material with which to build.
But as precisely captured atmosphere - the between-wars Vienna as seen through a devastating sneer - it is peerless.