I don't think I'd trust playwright Richard Nelson around the house with a hammer. Something tells me that if you asked him, say, to put up a picture hook, he'd pound the nail all the way into the plaster. Then he'd pound a large hole in the wall. And out of a perfectly commendable desire to leave no job half done, he'd keep right on pounding, until he managed to bring down a few beams and part of the ceiling.
It's certainly the approach he has taken with "The Vienna Notes," a shrill comedy about the national mania to talk about our lives, rather than lead them. This is a time, Nelson notes accurately enough, when celebrities of no consequence elbow their way onto TV to blab the most trivial details of their existence. Politicians insist on telling us what's in their hearts, not just their noggins. Absolutely nobody's waiting for the sunset years to start work on his memoirs; pop stars barely in their teens are beavering away on autobiographies. We're all so involved in confessing our ongoing feelings about the events of our lives that the events themselves are getting lost.
The point is well made. I just wish that Nelson didn't make it over and over again in "Vienna Notes," which has been mounted by the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company for an engagement through May 18. The production runs only 90 minutes without intermission, but after 15, you've had enough. After 30, you begin to wonder if Woolly Mammoth hasn't taken leave of its senses. At the hour mark, you may well slip into a stupor from which even the intimate confessions of Jacqueline Onassis could not arouse you.
Nelson's chief practitioner of the art of reckless self-examination is a famous senator (Marvin Hunter) who has just arrived in Vienna, where he is to deliver a lecture. Oblivious to the garrulous American hostess (Mary Ellen Nester) who welcomes him, deaf to the hotel porter (Grover Gardner) who recounts a volume's worth of local history, the senator wants only to get on with the business of dictating his memoirs. His faithful secretary (Barbara Rappaport) is at his heels, pen poised, notebook ready. He's filled 83 already.
No detail is too inconsequential to be put down on paper. ("I coughed, as I rubbed out my cigarette." "This could have been one of the most exciting, dramatic moments of my life, but it wasn't.") If the senator bothers to acknowledge anyone else, it's only to question how his image is shaping up. Or, as he asks, after one spurt of non-revelation, "How does it play?"
Later that night, he finds himself at a dinner party at the hostess' house when revolution breaks out on the doorstep. Nelson uses the occasion to further belabor the obvious. As bombs explode in the street and machine gun fire rains through the windows, the senator sinks to greater depths of self-dramatization, dragging the secretary and the hostess with him. Soon, they're all performing. They have no time for history. They're too busy trying to get their reactions to it right.
Unfortunately, Nelson does not write with a particularly sharp pen, and the dialogue, while inspiring an excessive amount of screaming and some bald histrionics, is not particularly amusing. In jig time, the play succumbs to the very qualities it is presumably satirizing: mundaneness and verbosity. And the Woolly Mammoth production, indulgently directed by Brian Nelson (no relation to the playwright), seriously compounds the faults.
Hunter can't begin to animate the torrent of verbiage pouring from the mouth of the senator. The character is fumbling for thoughts, but the actor is still fishing for lines. Nester, who has an actively grating voice in the higher registers, is called upon to screech repeatedly, as the hostess. Rappaport is acceptable as long as she's playing the no-nonsense secretary, but when she contracts memoiritis, her performance falls apart like all the rest. The one trick Nelson repeatedly tries to spring -- having his characters embark on apparently honest confessions that turn out to be just more instances of role-playing -- never comes off. This cast appears to be acting all the time.
Between scenes, while stage hands rearrange Lewis Folden's skimpy set, lush strains of Strauss waltzes flood the auditorium. Even the music's wrong. You will have long since concluded that the appropriate theme song for Nelson's endless diatribe is "Johnny One Note."
The Vienna Notes, by Richard Nelson, directed by Brian Nelson. Set, Lewis Folden; costumes, Petricia Raabe; lighting, Susan Munson. With Mary Ellen Nester, Barbara Rappaport, Marvin Hunter and Grover Gardner. At the Woolly Mammoth through May 18.