IN CONCEPT, at least, Richard Nelson's "The Vienna Notes" could have been the play that finally laid the self-indulgent '70s -- the much-publicized Me Decade -- to rest. At the Woolly Mammoth Theater, Nelson's satire takes aim at that decade's taste for ceaseless self-scrutiny, along with today's tiresome trend that has everyone -- winner, loser and nonentity alike -- writing "memoirs."
Sadly, in its 90 intermission-less, seemingly interminable minutes, Nelson's flawed work misses more than it hits.
At the play's center is egocentric crackpot Senator Stubbs, recently defeated in a presidential race, now in a Vienna hotel writing notebook No. 84 of his memoirs.
Stubbs lives his life for posterity instead of for the moment, examining in hindsight every inconsequential observation, down to the most minute non-event. While "real life" literally explodes around him, Stubbs remains zombie-like, vitalized only when he recreates the events in idealized form for his preposterously bulky book.
Stubbs and his bloodless secretary Rivers are invited to dinner by a fawning, fame- famished American hostess named Georgia. After Georgia's husband is murdered by terrorists (who are apparently after the Senator), Stubbs ignores the immediate tragedy and danger. Instead, he callously critiques her horror-struck reaction.
These three spend the rest of the play maddeningly fingering their feelings about the attack. Stubbs has one brief flash of lucidity -- "What am I doing with these entries, these thoughts I have on paper, when there's a life that breathes?" But his insight is sadly short-lived.
Each scene grows progressively more claustrophobic -- the unseen terrorists close in for the final attack, blood-soaked Georgia veers between staring and screaming, and Stubbs and his secretary dispassionately analyze their (utterly inappropriate) reactions to it all.
As the Senator, Marvin Hunter goes on a yammering hunt for his elusive thoughts. He's funny enough, but after two scenes of it, one wishes he would go away and run for office somewhere. Georgia seems to be a stand-in for the audience, and as actress Mary Ellen Nester spirals up to breathless hysteria, capping each monologue with a shrill air-raid shriek, we can't help but share her confusion and rage.
Nelson's play is as much about provoking (some would call it involving) the audience as anything else. And the nerves are further frayed by director Brian Nelson (no relation), who has encouraged the players to stall and bawl and feed on the audience's irritation, which grows exponentially with each successive scene.
Playwright Nelson seems to be laughing up his sleeve, giving all his characters lines that mirror the the progression of the audience's response: "I'm confused," "I want to scream!" and finally "SHUT UP!"
While "The Vienna Notes" can't be recommended as an enjoyable evening, it's undeniably provocative, and often funny in its cerebral, self-referential way. At the least, it's sure to instigate a lively discussion -- or argument -- on the way home.
THE VIENNA NOTES -- At Woolly Mammoth Theater (Church of the Epiphany, 1317 G Street NW) through May 18.