February 15, 2005

Arthur Schnitzler was a leading figure in fin-de-siècle Vienna – adored by scandalized audiences and admired by Sigmund Freud for his fearless insights into the vanity, treachery and fragile hopefulness of sex. His fame, however, didn’t last, and if he is known in the United States today, it is usually second-hand, from David Hare’s “Blue Room,” based on “La Ronde,” to Stanley Kubrick’s “Eyes Wide Shut,” inspired by “Traumnovelle,” Schnitzler’s 1926 novella.

The Mint Theater is now doing its utmost to restore Schnitzler to where he rightfully belongs, alongside such dramatists of middle-class life as Chekhov and Ibsen. Following its successful 2003 production of Schnitzler’s “Far and Wide,” the Mint is presenting New York’s first production of “The Lonely Way,” which has been seen only once in the United States since its 1904 premiere in Berlin. This spare, lucid production is a revelation, of an intensely moral work that finds breath-stopping drama where most of us find it in our own lives: in conversation with those we’re vulnerable with – a parent, a lover, a child.

Set in Vienna in a rather formal version of “the present,” the story centers on a once famous artist, Julian Fichtner (Ronald Guttman), who has spent his life chasing pleasure but in middle age finds himself unmoored and in despair. He seeks out his 23-year-old son, Felix Wegrat (Eric Alperin), a soldier who has always believed Fichtner to be no more than a family friend. The artist hopes that by revealing the truth he will claim the young man’s love. Then “my life would have some real grounding instead of being suspended in midair.”

It is testament to Schnitzler’s gift for creating complex characters that a man who understands love so selfishly does not seem cold but rather tender. He feeds on the ardor and innocence of those who love him, but those intense feelings never actually pierce him or pin him down. Nothing has changed, Felix tells him in the wake of the revelation, except “that now I should see a betrayer and a betrayed when just an hour ago I saw people that I loved.”

It is never clear whether the man who raised Felix, Professor Wegrat, has ever discovered that his best friend has cuckolded him, and that his wife, Gabriele, had been living a lie. That uncertainty only deepens the heartbreaking sense of honor George Morfogen brings to the role. Small and stooped, with wide, searching, startled eyes, the professor mocks himself as a mediocrity. But unlike Fichtner, he knows the satisfactions of a bounded, burdened life. When Felix offers to give up a great adventure to stay with his bereft father, Wegrat again makes the kind of sacrifice Fichtner can still only scorn, and insists he go: “I wouldn’t have more of you if you stayed; I’d have less.”

As in Ibsen, the women in this play control their destiny only through extreme measures.

Most heart-wrenching of all is the actress Irene Herms played by Lisa Bostnar. She gives a remarkable performance, combining the weightlessness of a lifelong coquette with a heroine’s gravity and ferocity. Herms has a long struggle to get over the grief of being childless, only to see her rebuilt world collapse again.

The set designer, Vicki R. Davis, and the lighting designer, Ben Stanton, play artfully with the tension between surfaces and depths that is thematically central to Schnitzler’s work. When the play begins, this sophisticated circle of friends sits in the pale, elegant light of today’s version of a chic Viennese salon, complete with silver resin benches designed by Frank Gehry. A gold frame at the rear displays what seems to be a painting of a twisting road, like the one on which Fichtner fled from Gabriele, “to a thousand unseen roads, all of which … I was still free to follow.” With a shift in lighting, it becomes clear the piece is in three dimensions, an empty, metal cage.