Nina Arianda (seated) and Kathleen Chalfant in ‘Tales From Red Vienna’
For a play about survival, David Grimm’s “Tales From Red Vienna,” barely registers a pulse.
Credit a snoozy script — three acts’ worth, no less — and a star who’s out of her comfort zone.
In post-World War I Austria, Helena Altman (Nina Arianda) resorts to the oldest profession to support herself after her husband’s battlefield death.
Her secret life and daily life collide when rich frenemy “Mutzi” Von Fessendorf (Tina Benko) introduces her to Bela Hoyos (Michael Esper), a Hungarian socialist/journalist.
But the two have already met — Bela’s been a customer.
Nina Arianda and Michael Esper in ‘Tales From Red Vienna’
Don’t worry, it’s totally predictable. The play unspools like a Bette Davis soap, minus the entertainment.
The slow first act introduces all these characters, plus a wisecracking housekeeper (Kathleen Chalfant) and moony delivery boy (Michael Goldsmith).
The second act, set wholly in a graveyard, including a picnic scene, leads to the arrival of a mystery man (Lucas Hall) and a melodramatic twist. The third act brings changes.
For all of its period details and political tumult — socialism, aristocrats in decline — the writer’s sole intent seems to remind that women must deal with idiotic men.
Director Kate Whoriskey’s staging looks good but her cast isn’t persuasive.
©2014 Joan Marcus
Michael Goldsmith and Nina Arianda in ‘Tales From Red Vienna’
Benko’s breathy line readings approach hurricane force, Chalfant’s snaps fall flat, and Esper’s boyishness works against him as the rugged Hungarian.
Arianda, so striking in her comic roles in “Born Yesterday” and “Venus in Fur,” which deservedly won her a Tony, makes very little impression.
The show is a telling reminder that actors are only as good as the material.
“Tales From Red Vienna” is the second World War I-era drama from MTC. It joins “The Snow Geese,” a Broadway turkey from the fall.
If these shows made the cut for the company’s season, one wonders what the rejects were.