Inspired by the real-life story of desperate German war widows who turned to prostitution in the 1920s, David Grimm’s Tales from Red Vienna begins with a powerful scene: From behind a loose black curtain that evokes a widow’s veil, a gentleman enters a woman’s living room and promptly has sex with her against a table; he leaves money for her, but her distaste is clear. The curtain is then pulled back and we learn that she is Heléna (Nina Arianda), a formerly well-off married woman who has taken to extremes to earn money after her husband was killed in WWI. Instead of a mansion, she now lives in a small apartment but still manages to be served by her longtime housekeeper, the quick-witted and cynical Edda (Kathleen Chalfant). When Heléna’s best friend, society doyenne Mutzi von Fessendorf (Tina Benko), hatches a plan in which Heléna will join her on what is supposed to be a blind date but is really a way for the married Mutzi to meet with her potential lover, Heléna is shocked when the fix-up turns out to be her most recent customer. Hungarian journalist Béla Hoyos (Michael Esper) instantly takes a liking to Heléna, and her eventual reciprocation leads to major problems as the story takes an unexpected yet utterly clichéd and extremely disappointing turn.
Directed by Kate Whoriskey (Ruined, Magdalena) with procedural attention across three acts with two intermissions, the Manhattan Theatre Club production at City Center is highlighted by John Lee Beatty’s (The Nance, Other Desert Cities) inventive sets, particularly the middle-section cemetery where Heléna and Bela have their secret rendezvous. But the promise of the first act slowly falls apart as predictable scenes mix with overacting (Benko, Hoyos) and underacting (Arianda, who was such a force in her Tony-winning role in Venus in Fur). Meanwhile, a subplot involving a Jewish grocer’s son (Michael Goldsmith) as a portent to the rise of Nazism essentially just fades away, emblematic of the play as a whole.