February 18, 2003

IMAGINE Chekhov as an Austrian. Such is the work of Arthur Schnitzler, a major playwright whose work is only now being adequately discovered.

Like Chekhov, he deals with the principal, soul-destroying habits of a society in its last days.

But while Chekhov wrote about thwarted idealism and frustrated love, Schnitzler, a friend of Freud’s, addresses fidelity and passion and humor and sex.

In the footsteps of “Anatol” (1893) and “La Ronde” (a 1900 play which was adapted by David Hare as “The Blue Room” for Nicole Kidman), Schnitzler’s saddest, wittiest and greatest play is just now receiving its New York premiere.

“Das Weite Land” (1911) is being produced as “Far and Wide” by the invaluable Mint Theater, where adapter/director Jonathan Bank has staged a lovely, moving version of this undiscovered masterpiece.

The play, a tragicomedy, takes place among the upper bourgeoisie and bohemia of Vienna, all nicely costumed by Theresa Squire.

The central character is Friedrich, a charming, eloquent manufacturer, superbly played by Hans Tester.

But thanks to his serial philandering, his marriage is in trouble.

His wife, Genia, beautifully done by Lisa Bostnar, puts up with it all and has yet to respond in kind herself – despite offers.

Enter Otto (a believably intense James Knight), son of an actress and a marine ensign, who, in between sets of tennis, pays eloquent court to Genia.

Meanwhile, Friedrich is willingly besieged by a very young Erna (a petulant Victoria Mack), who is herself besieged by a smitten doctor.

The central action soon spirals toward doom, making for a heart-breaking, marvelous play, brought to us at last in a distinguished production.