In 1903 the Viennese novelist and dramatist Arthur Schnitzler, then in his 30th year, wrote a play called “Reigen” for his own and his friends’ amusement. Reigen means the ring, or the circle, and this was a play about the interlocking carnal couplings of five men and five women, a chain with each link connecting to the next as one partner moved on to another, ending with the prostitute who had started the cycle by sweettalking a soldier in the night.
The substrata of this romantic roundelay was the syphilis these five men and five women were passing along, spreading through society, one to another. Schnitzler privately printed up 200 copies, which were instantly banned by the Viennese censors. The play was therefore not produced — never seen — until a staging in Budapest in 1920. The actors were promptly hauled off to court and “Reigen” squashed once again.
Thirty years later — in 1950 — bluenosed American authorities kept “La Ronde,” Max Ophuls’s great French all-star motion-picture adaptation of “Reigen,” from being shown on these shores. It was not until 1954 that the ban was overturned, and New Yorkers and other Americans could luxuriate in the magical performances of Simone Signoret (as the prostitute), Serge Reggiani (the soldier), Simone Simon, (the housemaid), Daniel Gelin (the student), Danielle Darrieux (the wife), Fernand Gravey (her husband), Odette Joyeux (the vaudeville star), Jean-Louis Barrault (the poet), Isa Miranda (the actress), Gerard Philippe (the count), and, above all, uniting all, Anton Walbrook as the raconteur keeping the whole wheel spinning.
Well, New Yorkers and other Americans have never seen anything like “The Roundof Pleasure,” a 1990s “Reigen”-inspired brutal comedy by Werner Schwab, the slashing one-of-a-kind Viennese sculptor, woodworker, and playwright who died of what’s thought to have been alcohol poisoning, at age 36 on New Year’s Eve, 1994.
Schwab sardonically subheaded his script as “after The Round Dance from the pen of the pleasant Mr. Arthur Schnitzler,” and those may in themselves be the only relatively cordial words in the whole deal, as anyone who attends the New York premiere of “The Round of Pleasure,” November 10 to December 16, at Clemente Soto Velez, 107 Suffolk Street, will quickly learn.
The hunky-tunky sawtoothed English-language translation by Michael Mitchell from the original Viennese dialect — a language like none other heard before — has been transferred to the stage by director Ildiko Nemeth, an attractive New Yorker from Budapest who remembers seeing the Ophuls film — “I was very young” — but preferred not to reread Schnitzler’s “Reigen” while bringing Schwab’s takeoff to the Lower East Side of Manhattan.
Here is a smidgeon of it:
LANDLORD to HAIRDRESSER [he and she and all the others are equipped with screw-off plastic genitalia]: The interest you’re stirring up in my brain-chamber is truly uplifting, my dear young lady. I hope to see you often keeping my living room occupied. (He sits down beside her; she shifts a little away from him.) What’s this? Are you going to emigrate from our chattiness, sitting yourself so far away from your landlord? Did you get a touch of distaste within the hive of my aura? He goes out, returns with a bowl of water, pushes her head into the water, pulls his
plastic penis out of his pants, sticks it up her skirt. She gurgles and he lets go of her. The lovemaking is over.
Was ever woman in this humor woo’d?
Was ever woman in this humor won?
I’ll have her, but I will not keep her long.
“What the play is saying,” says Ms. Nemeth — the married mother of a 3 year-old - “is there’s no shock effect in sex any more. Now it’s like a trading tool — a trade of sex for power, money, social status. This is our existence now, what’s happening now. These people are entities, or ‘idioms,’ or objects.” And in place of syphilis there’s mention of AIDS.
“There are also certain social rules that are all on a menu you can choose from; if you don’t choose, you starve to death. Schwab’s characters operate mechanically, without learning anything, without continuity or life experience. The play ends on a note that can easily start again. There is no conclusion, no solution. It just goes round and round and round … ”
And that crazy hippity-hoppity upside-down inside-out deliberately incorrect slanguage?
“The language speaks them; they don’t speak the language.”
One of her actors, Charles Finney, he who plays the Landlord, actually knew and worked with Werner Schwab. The others are: Markus Hirnigel, Galway McCullough, Catherine Correa, Nicole Hafner, Jeanne Lauren Smith, Kaylin Lee Clinton, Florencia Minniti, Sarah Lemp, John Rosania, and Peter Schmitz.
Ildiko Nemeth, born in Budapest on September 23, 1967, studied psychology and acting at Elle University in that city. Her father was an engineer, her mother, who is still with us, ran a nursery. Nemeth and her husband — architect Arpad Baksa — live on the Upper West Side. Arriving in the United States ten years ago, she founded the New Stage Theatre Company in 2002 to do — well, to do what she’s doing now.