`Undiscovered Country': a witty but dry study of Victorian love Undiscovered Country Play by Arthur Schnitzler, adapted by Tom Stoppard. Directed by Nikos Psacharopoulos.
Williamstown, Mass. — In the middle of Arthur Schnitzler's play ``Undiscovered Country'' a character explains his relationship to his estranged wife: ``I loved her so much and I was still capable of deceiving her.'' These twin but contradictory emotions -- love and deceit -- form the core of the Austrian playwright's work. Written in 1911 as ``Das Weite Land'' and adapted into English by British playwright Tom Stoppard in 1979, ``Undiscovered Country'' is a clinical study of love and of love gone awry. A contemporary of fellow Austrian Sigmund Freud, Schnitzler attempts to articulate the usually unexamined yet powerful emotions driving much of human behavior.
It is not difficult to see why the work, a witty dialectic undertaken by the privileged upper middle classes regarding the duality and fallibility of human actions, appealed to Stoppard. ``Lies,'' says one of the play's protagonists. ``It's called bluff. It's all part of the fun.'' While not as compelling as works by Swedish playwright August Strindberg and not nearly as witty as Stoppard's own work, Schnitzler's play makes for an ambitious original if not wholly successful first production of the season at the Williamstown Theatre Festival.
Set in turn-of-the century Vienna, the play tracks the relationships of Friedrich Hofreiter, a middle-aged industrialist and philanderer. His wife, Genia, inexplicably remains faithful to her dallying spouse -- until a young pianist and friend of her husband's kills himself over her refusal to become his mistress. The play opens in the aftermath of this suicide. This action incites Friedrich to wrath -- not for reasons of scandal -- but because he believes his wife responsible for the death. Their exchange, rife with typical Stoppardian repartee -- ``What should I be reproached for, my faithfulness?'' asks Genia -- sets the stage for Schnitzler's larger argument that both virtue and faithlessness portend unhappiness, even tragedy. ``We try to bring order into our lives. . . . The natural condition is chaos,'' says another character.
While Schnitzler peppers his play with a few characters antithetical to that premise, particularly Dr. Franz Mauer, the playwright insufficiently dramatizes the argument. Nearly all consequential actions and decisions occur offstage. For instance, we never see or hear Genia's subsequent decision to acquire a lover until they are in the throes of goodbyes.
Undoubtedly aided by Stoppard's keen ear for dry philosophical argument, whetted by wit, Schnitzler's dissection of human behavior occasionally rises from the merely intellectual into the emotional. Aided, too, by the steady hand of Williamstown Theatre Festival artistic director Nikos Psacharopoulos, who has selected Schnitzler's ``La Ronde'' as the third WTF offering this season, the play frequently lifts into the dramatic.
This is due in no small way to Blythe Danner's portrayal of Genia. Her final scene with James Naughton as Friedrich is clearly the evening's most riveting.
But Stoppard, Psacharopoulos, and Danner aside, ``Undiscovered Country'' never truly transcends the dialectical. This is due in no small part to Schnitzler's own shortcoming. His use of 38 characters, particularly in the Lake Vols hotel scene and the recurrent tennis match, is questionable. And Schnitzler's avidity for discussing rather than dramatizing is only compounded by several opaque performances, particularly Peter Riegert, who turns the good Dr. Mauer into a stalwart but ungalvanized moral force.
Teri Garr as Adele Natter, one of Friedrich's discarded amours, is little better. With the exception of Lalia Robins's nuanced, controlled performance as Erna, a younger lover of Friedrich's, the other characters are on stage all too briefly, and several are used only for humor. As the play's other protagonist, Mr. Naughton has occasionally fine moments, but his timing is not especially suited to Stoppard's flick-of-the-wrist humor and frequently his lines descend to declamatory rhetoric. The cast with the exception of Danner never catches the spirit of these people, ``made wretched by jealousy, lust.''
The handsome and intricate sets by David Jenkins are airy and oaken by turns and wonderfully suited to the play's feel. Jennifer Von Mayrhauser's costumes -- high-necked Victorian gowns, lederhosen, and omnipresent tennis whites -- do the same.