by Jose Ruiz
The concept of reality and illusion, Arthur Schnitzler’s ongoing theme in most of his works, is merrily unfolded in Pacific Resident Theatre’s Anatol, a romantic romp that skirts issues of neuroticism, self-delusion and outright egoism. Written in 1893, the play is set in Vienna at the turn of the century, and for its time, was considered scandalous for its frank look at sexuality.
If you remember the TV character of Frazer played by Kelsey Grammer, you’ll see a lot of him in Matt Letscher’s portrayal of Anatol, a charismatic but pompous, arrogant, self-righteous playboy who believes that every woman he encounters has fallen madly for him. He loves the women but always with reservations. His greatest fear is that his current love will be cheating on him, so he pre-empts the event by doing the cheating first, feeling justified since he believes that all women are prone to lying and deceit.
The play has a parade of seven lovelies enacting a particular episode when Anatol managed to destroy whatever feelings existed between them because he was exceedingly stupid, exceedingly selfish or both. From one-night stands to longer escapades, Schnitzler draws a picture of how one man sees his view of reality while the women in his life often see the exact opposite. Anatol’s faithful friend, Max, is present throughout the seven episodes, serving as a sounding board, a critic, a support system and sometimes a reluctant accomplice. Alex Enberg is wonderful in the role, displaying more patience and tolerance towards Anatol than the proverbial Job.
Rachel Avery starts the beauty pageant, playing young Cora, a lovely innocent suspected of infidelity. We never know if she did or didn’t, but after meeting Anatol, we can’t blame her if she did. Anatol breaks it off eventually. Ursula Brooks follows as Gabrielle, a married woman whose indiscretion with Anatol has gnawed at her (and him to some extent) for years. A casual meeting seems to revive old feelings . . . will he follow up? Bianca was an “entertainer”, in several ways, and her one night episode was firmly riveted in his mind, but when they meet again months later, she barely remembers the place or the time. Anatol is crushed. Will he try to get her back? Angela Wiggins covers the role with aplomb and confidence. Shiva Rose plays Emilie with mystery and ambiguity. The day before their wedding, Anatol discovers two small gemstones in her desk and demands an explanation. Emilie is somewhat ambivalent about their origins but finally satisfies him about the ruby until the issue of the second stone comes up. Convinced she may have cheated, Anatol must decide if the relationship will continue.
Ginna Carter is hilarious as tipsy Annie, the love of his life, until he meets another woman and begins to see her also. He sets up a dinner to tell Annie it’s over, with Max there for support. Those old enough to remember the great Bette Davis will see that Carter channels some the bravura and audaciousness that made Davis great in her comedies. The turnabout in this episode is the stuff of classic comedy, and the ensemble plays it to the hilt. Elsa is married and steals away from her husband as often as possible to be with Anatol, but this isn’t enough for him, even though she swears her love. Will he find a way to break it off? Martha Hackett is excellent displaying passion and guilt. Perhaps the toughest affair is Illona, an imposing blonde who re-connects with Anatol after a long absence. She stays with him overnight – and after and exhausting night of loving, Max shows up reminding Anatol that today is his wedding day (to someone else). What to do with Ilona? Valerie Dillman provides the answer – perhaps not one Anatol wants, but definitely one that keeps the audience laughing. Like another famous local Austrian, her words provide a fitting close as she is escorted out of Anatol’s house by Max asserting “I’ll be back!” Andrew Ebert plays a waiter and William Lithgow appears as Anatol’s butler, Underscoring the sexuality of the play, between scenes a half naked woman appears as a dimly lit statue high in the back of the stage. The actress is not credited.
There are many analyses about Anatol by scholars who speak of it as a study of the sexual neurasthenia of a young man or the hypocrisy of a double standard expecting women to be pure while winking at the dalliances of men. It may be a critique of sexual standard around the turn of the century (1900) or a self examination by Schnitzler, who had multiple relations and kept minute journals recording his orgasms.
At the risk of seeming pedestrian, we’ll simply say that besides all that, the production is great fun, elegant, polished and superbly directed by Dan Bonnell. You have to see this. It’s a riot!
Anatol plays at The Pacific Resident Theatre through May 27, 2007. Located at 703 Venice Boulevard in Venice, CA 90291. Reservations at: (310)822-8392
Pick of the week www.pacificresidenttheatre.com