Nina Arianda was Broadway’s newest “it” girl from her first night onstage in Manhattan Theatre Club’s “Venus In Fur” — even before she took home the 2012 Tony Award for her portrayal of a seductive actress with an audition and an agenda. Whatever her next move would be, Arianda would have to choose it carefully, of course; the favor of critics is harder to court than a cocky director at a casting call.
David Grimm’s “Tales from Red Vienna,” off-Broadway at New York City Center, turned out to be Arianda’s next theater project. To her merit, it underscores her dedication to new works and her loyalty to MTC. However, there’s room to criticize her risk in choosing a play that was, even after opening, still deciding what it wanted to be.
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The play follows the fall of a socialite whose husband dies in World War I, leaving her penniless. Desperate, she turns to prostitution to make ends meet. While the decision puts a few coins in her pockets, it could cost her standing in society. When a socialist and journalist — whichever’s worse — comes along with the potential to reveal her, a bartered affair begins.
One can see the parallels between “Venus” and “Vienna” that might have attracted the burgeoning starlet: In both, she gets to play a sexually empowered woman who is wrestling against patriarchal constructs. They’re meaty, memorable roles that keep their player center stage — and dressed flatteringly; Anita Yavich’s costumes elevate the widowed Helena to regality, tastefully reminding us of her happier past. But the newer play’s messages are clumsy, taking on more meaningfulness than the work can successfully execute.
The other actors share in doubt or misunderstanding of the script, making new and incompatible choices in every scene. More focus on the writing — maybe one solid workshop — might have uncovered the show’s cracks and given the team time to mortar them. Instead, after a last-ditch plot twist that further clouds the characters’ motivations, the play simply chooses an end that doesn’t require it to choose an end.
We get there on beautifully detailed sets by the great John Lee Beatty, even if the large pieces (a fraying parlor and romantic mausoleum) do box in the action and underutilize the broad and deep Stage 1. Besides which, changing them back and forth seems to require an intermission, as the play inexplicably has two.
So “Red Vienna” seems to be a vehicle better suited for a greener Nina Arianda. She clearly saw its promising seeds, for lack of fertile ground. But at least this seemingly quixotic pick wasn’t predictable: The theater community will have to stay on its toes, wondering what stage’s reigning “one to watch” will be doing next.
If you go
'Tales from Red Vienna'
Through April 20
New York City Center - Stage 1
131 W. 55th St.