Shakespeare used the food chain to prove that it’s a small world after all. When Polonius gets his behind the arras in Hamlet, the sarcastic prince of Denmark muses that a poor man might eat a fish that’s fed on a worm that’s dined on a dead royal—and thus, “a king may go a progress through the guts of a beggar.” Arthur Schnitzler’s innovation was to make the same point using sex. His Reigen (written 1897, privately published 1900, first publicly performed 1921) follows a carnal round-robin as it goes a progress through the Austro-Hungarian caste system.
Popularly known as La Ronde—on the grounds, I guess, that French always sounds more seductive—Schnitzler’s piece isn’t really a play as such but a collection of scenes that starts with a prostitute, Leocadia, giving a soldier a freebie. The soldier next shares intimacies with a chambermaid, who’s subsequently accosted by Alfred, the randy son of her employer. Alfred moves on to a bourgeois married woman, who then finds herself in the oddly wholesome circumstance of making love with her own husband in her own conjugal bed. The sleazy order of things is restored, however, when the husband not only picks up a girl on the street but slips her a Mickey to make her compliant. She rebounds from that to mess with a playwright, who messes with an actress, who in turn messes with a philosophical nobleman, who, finally, spends a night with Leocadia, the whore who got things rolling in the first place.
Banned in Vienna, its author prosecuted for obscenity, La Ronde was a huge succes de scandale in its time. Now, shuffled up a bit, it might be an episode of HBO’s Girls. Social media’s weird combination of extreme intimacy and absolute anomie has created a sex-transmission dynamic—call it STD—that’s nothing if not La Ronde-like, only on a vastly expanded scale.
Perhaps that’s why the folks at Street Tempo Theatre decided this is the right moment to stage the La Ronde Project, a repertory festival featuring productions of three scripts—Schnitzler’s original, of course; David Hare’s 1998 adaptation, The Blue Room; and Joe DiPietro’s 2008, gay-centric Fucking Men—plus Improvised La Ronde, which builds on a Schnitzleresque theater game.
For all the intriguing parallels that might be found between our sexual behavior and that of the fin de siecle Viennese, there are some major difficulties involved in staging La Ronde now. One is the inherent lack of narrative build: the characters come and go, as it were, and the scenes don’t move us anywhere other than up and finally back down the economic ladder. Since nothing connects Schnitzler’s ten vignettes except the daisy-chain pattern of successive assignations, directors have to find their own glue. Verboten sexual content would certainly have been a big source of adhesive tension 92 years ago. But then so would satire. Early audiences no doubt got a nice frisson out of Schnitzler’s caricatures of various societal types—not to mention the spectacle of their mixing in ways that no respectable person would ever acknowledge.
Director Tim Curtis doesn’t render the sex explicitly enough or draw the class lines sharply enough to draw much momentum from either of them. In fact, he doesn’t seem to have thought much about momentum at all. Each sexual negotiation in his La Ronde comes across as its own separate principality, bearing little connection to the ones on either side of it. Which inevitably leads to unevenness—not just overall but within some individual bits. The charm and naturalism of Stacie Barra’s married woman makes complete sense, for instance, when she’s trying to come to terms with her pompous, deceitful husband; not so much when she’s wrestling with Brandon Galatz’s cartoonish Alfred. Only Laura Sturm manages to finesse the problem: her actress is at once a diva and a clever woman who understands the useful absurdity of the diva role.
Fucking Men author DiPietro has his own solutions to the momentum problem. First, he connects the vignettes by filling the spaces between them with little ghost scenes in which snatches of dialogue we’re about to hear are spoken out of context, as a kind of prescient echo. Second, he concerns himself exclusively with gay men, creating a sense of unity from the fact that the characters—however diverse in terms of age, income, and erotic preoccupation—are all basically members of the same club. Third, and most important, he ups the dramatic ante considerably, giving everybody a lot—a lot—to say about their feelings, desires, and relationships.
While these strategies go a long way toward reengineering La Ronde‘s fragmented structure into a coherent whole, they also throw over Schnitzler’s subversive intent in favor of soap opera. We’re left with the odd irony that a true outlaw contingent—America’s persecuted gay minority—is represented in the La Ronde Project by a sappy, mainstream relationship drama.
The Blue Room, on the other hand, is just right. There’s no momentum problem in this La Ronde update because Hare achieves in late-20th-century terms precisely what Schnitzler did in his time, finding the heart of the tragic joke of our social arrangements and playing it out for us to see. We slip easily from interlude to interlude because each one is embedded in what the news reports call facts on the ground, and the people in each interlude carry those facts with them in their being, handing them off to the next before they disappear. A true ronde. Elegantly directed by Brian Posen and Cody Spellman, The Blue Room makes a sad, spare, awful sense.
And Improvised La Ronde? Never mind that. The idea of an unscripted sexual roundelay sounds fascinating, but on opening night, a group of 11 performers abandoned wit—much less truthfulness—and settled instead for trying to make a virtue of inadequacy. We were supposed to love them for what they were failing to accomplish, and that got old quick.