When did sex stop being fun? Sure, convincing coitus is a bitch to stage, but that alone can’t excuse this fleshly misery. Today’s sex scenes are anxious, desperate, violent, hopeless, or unpersuasively shocking — devoid of true delight. If real intercourse resembled its theatrical counterpart, humanity would have long since quit.
Steeped in sub-Freudian gloom, David Grimm’s Tales From Red Vienna at Manhattan Theatre Club emphasizes the shadowed side of Eros. The first scene shows Heléna (Nina Arianda) returning to her apartment with a man. Through a gauzy curtain and murky lighting, we see him paw at her clothing, then at his own, shoving her across a table, and accomplishing just a few sharp thrusts before collapsing into orgasm. When he attempts a cuddle, she hastens him out the door.
Heléna is new to prostitution. Her husband’s death in the Great War left her destitute. After selling off her home and most of its furnishings, she’s settled into relative squalor with Edda (Kathleen Chalfant), her perceptive, bibulous maid. When rich frenemy Mutzi (Tina Benko) introduces her to a not-so-suitable bachelor (Michael Esper), Heléna dares real ardor. But even here Grimm can’t allow her unalloyed pleasure. The site he chooses for their tryst? Her dead husband’s memorial. Symbolism aside, those tiles can’t possibly be comfortable.
Grimm’s play owes a debt to other, better ones by the likes of Ibsen, Scribe, and Schnitzler. “Why do I feel as though I’m in a comedy by Beaumarchais?” Heléna wonders. Likely because Grimm has borrowed from him, too. Kate Whoriskey is a sensitive director, particularly attuned to women’s joys and griefs. But she can’t make the material matter and won’t let it rest as melodrama. The same goes for the excellent actors. Chalfant somehow succeeds, but not even Arianda, however adroit and luminous, can enliven Heléna. Leaving the theater, you’ll likely recall little more than Anita Yavich’s elegant, figure-skimming costumes and Grimm’s tutting sensuality, which promises that anyone who tastes bodily pleasure will suffer for it. Ask not for whom the boots knock; they knock for thee.
Anyone annoyed by the joylessness of Grimm’s shabby moralizing should head to the Abrons Arts Center for Julie Atlas Muz and Mat Fraser’s Beauty and the Beast. There’s plenty of sex here, too, and while much is ridiculous, it is also exultant, giddy, and life-affirming.
Under Phelim McDermott’s direction, Muz and Fraser counterpoise the traditional fairy tale with their own real-life romance, which began at Coney Island’s freak show and climaxed six years later in a zombie-themed wedding. Local girl Muz, a paradigm-shifting burlesque star, plays Beauty. Her London-bred husband, Fraser, who was born with flipper-like limbs, plays the Beast. Graceful and epicene, Fraser doesn’t seem especially beastly, but as he shruggingly announces, “I have no thumbs, that miracle of human evolution, setting apart the animals,” Muz also admits a deformity: “I’m American,” she deadpans.
Using direct address, inventive overhead projections, and a pair of spirited “puppeteer slaves,” Muz and Fraser offer a story in which no kiss transforms the Beast into a prince. Instead, Beauty realizes that she likes beasts better. They celebrate their love with a stage saturnalia that likely breaks the decency laws of most states and should warm the hearts of everyone watching. Muz and Fraser may not live happily ever after, but they seem determined to enjoy themselves in the meantime.