The Lonely Way
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
February 10, 2005
I could start this review by saying The Lonely Way is about "this" or "that"; but to do so would be reductive. This new adaptation of Arthur Schnitzler's 1904 drama Der einsame Weg, translated by Margret Schaefer and Jonathan Bank and directed by Bank at the Mint Theater Company, reveals this work—hitherto unseen in New York, a shocking omission—to be a complex and challenging and spectacularly human play, a rich and involving drama of, among so many other subjects, the difficult and fragile nature of true connection among members of our species. This production makes for a triumphant debut, 100 years late, of an important and necessary work; it's another worthy effort by the Mint, whose place among New York's most esteemed nonprofit theatre companies grows surer with each opening night.
Its intellectual breadth takes in the thoughts of any number of philosophers who were Schnitzler's contemporaries, but The Lonely Way's form feels Chekhovian to me. Look at who inhabits this play: a professor and his dying wife; their two young adult children, both dreaming of how to get as far away as possible; a famous but now-blocked brilliant artist; a writer in the grips of a fatal disease; an aging actress whose economic situation has forced her to retire to the provinces; and a doctor who lives next door who is a wry observer of everyone's limitations, beginning with his own. Schnitzler gives them action, but it's their interaction—or the impossibility of it, perhaps—that's at his play's center.
The main conflict of the play concerns the artist, Julian Fichtner, and his determination to reclaim his son—23-year-old Felix Wegrat, who has grown up completely unaware that his true father is Fichtner rather than his mother's husband, the steady but unimaginative professor who raised him. The Professor is in the dark as well, though his wife—who dies young, between Acts I and II—has confessed the truth to their neighbor, Dr. Reumann; another neighbor, the writer Stephan Von Sala, also knows the facts of the case, as Fichtner's best and perhaps only real friend. Felix's younger sister Johanna, meanwhile, is in love with Von Sala and desperate to leave the home she no longer cares for or understands. Complicating matters still further is the actress Irene Herms, once Fichtner's lover, and now, on a rare visit to the city, confronted with her own betrayal at the hands of the man she loved.
I realize that I may have made The Lonely Way sound like a soap opera, so I reiterate that what makes this play tick is not what happens but what its characters feel, wish, fail to say. Schnitzler uncovers the engines of his characters' personalities and lets us look at how they work: the tragically self-aware narcissist Von Sala versus the contrastingly cluelessly self-involved Fichtner, who knows only that he's a kind of superman and therefore can use people as it suits him, consequences be damned; the passionate Irene, bravely plowing ahead toward a life of obscure loneliness; the Professor, destined to lose his family one by one and a stranger to them anyhow. He perhaps understands the essential human situation best of all:
That's the way of the world: our children never really belong to us. As for other people... even our best friends are only guests in our lives; they get up from the table when they're finished—and vanish back into their own lives. It's perfectly natural...
Professor Wegrat's words here and elsewhere resonated so clearly with me that he felt like the wisest man on stage; but Schnitzler captures so much of humanity in his play!—again, reminiscent of Chekhov—making each of his characters the star of the show that is their life, playing out before us. Someone on stage is going to startle you by articulating what you know to be true—but only you will know which one.
A play this rich necessarily provides immense opportunities to actors, and happily for the most part they're met brilliantly by Bank and his company. George Morfogen, as Professor Wegrat, is at the peak of his considerable powers here, revealing alternately this man's vulnerability, foolishness, sadness, and fortitude, often in the subtlest and simplest of ways. Lisa Bostnar, as Irene Herms, provides the play's other powerhouse performance, a portrayal of a woman of strength, compassion, selfishness, and regret that is nothing short of heartbreaking in its precision. Ronald Guttman's Fichtner is rivetingly complex despite the single-minded arc of his character; he made me very aware of Fichtner's real affection for those he has misused and manhandled in his past, as well as the absolute illusoriness of his final stab at redemption in reuniting with his son.
The fine young actor Eric Alperin charts the jolting journey that Felix undergoes during the ten days of the play's action, losing a mother and then gaining a father he didn't know he was missing. And Sherry Skinker makes the mother, Gabriele, so interesting that we're sorry to lose her so quickly when she dies early in the play. Only Jordan Lage, as Von Sala, seems out of his element here—he looks too young and hearty to convince us that he's Fichtner's equal in years and temperament; and his characterization seems realized more through physical tics than a compelling inner life. The others in the ensemble—Constance Tarbox (Johanna), John Leonard Thompson (Dr. Reumann), Bennet Leak (Fichtner's Valet)—prove effective.
Vicki R. Davis's abstract set, decorated sparingly by Frank Gehry's stark mod furniture, is lovely; it provides a strong visual clue to the play's focus on ideas rather than conventional plot; Ben Stanton's lighting does an outstanding job establishing mood, time, and place. The costumes, by Henry Shaffer, emphasize the timelessness of the work and also give us something pretty to look at, especially in the case of Bostnar's and Skinker's wardrobe.
At the helm, Jonathan Bank does his usual expert work, giving each of his actors the platform they need to state their case and play to our sympathies. Many times throughout the play, the people on stage seem inordinately aware that that's exactly where they are—acting in the metaphorical drama of life that Shakespeare first postulated and that Schnitzler here almost mischievously revels in. If only all of us could be so clear about our choices and follies as we battle the unknowable destiny of events. Which is precisely what we go to the theatre to discover.