You might describe Arthur Schnitzler's "La Ronde" as a sexual variation of "The Farmer in the Dell."
Its 10 interlocking scenes of seduction go like this: In the first, the prostitute takes the soldier; in the second, the soldier takes the parlormaid; in the third, the parlormaid takes the young gentleman. And so on, until the world-weary count takes the prostitute and the play comes full circle.
Each scene builds to sexual consummation, which occurs in a blackout and is followed by the postcoital blues. For all the flying knickers, torn bodices and dropped pants, these coupling creatures ultimately stand alone. Like the cheese. Heigh-ho!
Written before the turn of the century, but infrequently performed until the 1950s (and to yelps of protest, at that), "La Ronde" has been revived by the Studio Theatre in a handsome production that works about half the time. If acting requires a surrender of the self, so does sex. Acting sex merely doubles the difficulties. Some of the Studio actors are right on target, but others are going through the motions, if you will, and struck me as vaguely distressed that an audience was actually watching.
Fortunately, "La Ronde" regularly changes characters and settings so that if this production dips here and there, it is not too long before it manages to redeem itself and recapture Schnitzler's tone of sweet bitterness. Courtship, you see, is just a game, and protestations of love mask raw egotism. The characters never say what they really mean. "I'm only staying a minute" signifies "Make me stay longer." "What are you doing to me?" is code for "What am I letting myself do?"
It's not as scheming as it might sound, however. These teases and flirts lie as much to themselves as they do to the momentary object of their affections. They all want to believe in the reality of their passion -- and do, at least until the sexual act is over and they are left with harsher truths. A character who feels used in one scene is very likely, in the next, to become the user. But no one ever wins. And the deceptions go on.
Set designer Russell Metheny has turned the Studio's usual open acting area into an smart Art Deco theater, complete with proscenium arch and footlights. The curtain opens and closes on the 10 vignettes to lush music, thick with mocking romanticism. By using the theater itself as a framework for Schnitzler's encounters, director Joy Zinoman has hit at the heart of the work. The characters are, in fact, actors, playing out the illusion of romance. The "willing suspension of disbelief" we bring to theater is precisely what allows them, burned by one fling, to throw themselves into another.
In the Studio cast, Julie Frazer is most adept at doubling the emotions, which is what Schnitzler demands. Timid and forthright, eager and restrained, innocent and manipulative, Frazer vibrates back and forth as the young wife, who arrives for her extracurricular tryst wearing more veils than a beekeeper. Then in the next scene, her composure unwrinkled, her large eyes luminous with childlike wonder, she proceeds to grill her husband (Paul Marvel) about his past. (If that's hypocrisy, Frazer makes it deliciously amusing.)
Marvel calls her "my little angel" and treats her with all the smuggery of the male chauvinist in an expansive mood. Then he turns around and, in a restaurant alcove, makes a silly fool of himself over a Viennese Lolita, who is tempted by his advances at the same time she is loath to pass up a fancy dessert. Isabel Keating is dandy as the bundle of youthful gangliness coming undone.
Margaret Huffstickler has the properly vulgar airs of the prostitute who entertains the fewest illusions of anyone in this disenchanted society. (The production's one flash of nudity also falls to her.) But even her head gets turned by the soldier, played with arrogant swagger by Michael Frith. Elsewhere, however, the casting falls off drastically. Charles Serio is one long drone as the dreamy poet. Barbara Brickman's posturings as the actress are the flailings of the amateur. And Roger McEwan, as the philosophical count, hangs his head, mumbles into his chest and looks perfectly mortified at finding himself in such surroundings. Since those three constitute the last links in the chain, "La Ronde" doesn't exactly go out in a blaze of libido.
Still, along the way, there are some flashes of passion, followed, more importantly, by passion's often cold and sour aftermath. On Schnitzler's merry-go-round of sex, vertigo is all the riders can honestly expect. The brass ring is forever out of grasp. La Ronde, by Arthur Schnitzler, adapted by John Barton. Directed by Joy Zinoman. Sets, Russell Metheny; costumes, Catherine Adair; lighting, Stuart Duke. With Margaret Huffstickler, Michael Frith, Elizabeth Hansen, Michael Wells, Julie Frazer, Paul Marvel, Isabel Keating, Charles Serio, Barbara Brickman, Roger McEwan. At the Studio Theatre through April 21.