Arthur Schnitzler, the Viennese-Jewish playwright (1862-1931) created a furor in his time, writing realistically of sex in a Victorian era. With his play “Reigen” (“The Round”), he depicted a series of carnal couplings. Viewing the act dispassionately, but graphically, like a scientist studying bugs under a microscope, the piece was no doubt shocking to a conservative society. And at the time Schnitzler was denounced as a pornographer--and would be condemned later by Hitler for his “Jewish filth.”
Yet, the Schnitzler work has lived on, in one version or another. Its sardonic view of human nature at its most basic moment somehow appeals to our cynical age. “La Ronde” enjoyed Broadway success a few years ago, and now New York’s daring downtown experimental group, The New Stage Theatre Company, takes up the challenge. This off-Broadway company, which pulled off a coup last year with “Some Historic/Some Hysteric,” plunges into the piece.
Ildiko Nemeth is a highly creative director, who puts her own stamp on the piece. She clothes her cast of eleven players in flesh-colored body suits bound in masking tape, and though the beige monotone is sometimes relieved by touches of golden costumes, there is a sameness, an overall sense of ensemble, to the piece.
The story, if it can be called a story, traces the couplings from prostitute to businessman to hairdresser and so on, winding up with an actress and member of parliament and back to the prostitute. Though there are variations on the basic sex act itself and in the characters’ approaches, the feeling is that any one might team up with any one else, with little difference in results.
Director Nemeth simulates the sex acts with flutterings of hands and gasps and twitches, which increase rhythmically to fever pitch and gradually subside. With such clever simulation, one is reminded that animals in rut (sans love, affection, humanity) are indeed absurdly awkward and hilarious in performance.
Though the vision of Nemeth and the skills of her cast cannot be denied, “The Round of Pleasure” does not measure up to the company’s earlier piece. “Some Historic/Some Hysteric” took on all of a human being—body, heart, and mind, if you will—while “The Round of Pleasure” limits itself to only one aspect of being human.