Final Analysis, a new play by Otho Eskin directed by Ludovica Villar-Hauser is a droll, philosophical “what if” tale currently being presented at the Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre on 42nd Street at the Pershing Square Signature Center. The production is well acted and directed and makes effective use of space and time with efficient staging.
The play predominately takes place in a cafe in Vienna just before WW I. Its characters are a few luminaries of the century who were influenced to later greatness or infamy by the issues and cultural attitudes present in the great European city at that time. Though some had not made their mark of fame as the play unfolds, they proclaim that their destiny and greatness will eventually spin out on a world stage.
The Waiter (Stephen Bradbury) introduces the background of Vienna showing a clip of an early black and white film of the cultural street life and environs. At the time, Vienna was a city of extremes. On the one hand the upper class lived their luxurious, opulent lives above the “hot struggles of the poor.” The masses who barely made it to the next day suffered the destitution that corruption, ethnic hatreds and discrimination fomented. Then there were the artists and intellectuals who spanned both classes and attempted upward mobility. Otho Eskin has fun with representatives who mirror both classes in the artistic and intellectual worlds. These are the 20th century celebrities in their nascent stages who will go to on to manifest their destiny.
From the wealthier class of artists are Gustav Mahler (Ezra Barnes), one of the great composers and orchestral conductors, and Alma Mahler (Elizabeth Jasicki), his wife, whose love affairs with prominent artists of Vienna keep him miserable. His failing marriage sends him into the arms of Sigmund Freud (Gannon McHale) who attempts to help him recover his dignity and foster renewed hope through love, while Freud perfects his new science of the mind. Periodically joining the company of Freud and the Mahlers is Ludwig Wittgenstein (Michael Satow), the brilliant intellectual who dominated philosophical thought for half a century. These individuals mingle with each other at the cafe and make ancillary comments to the lower class representatives of the proletariat whom they mostly eschew, Joseph Stalin (Tony Naumovski) and an irascible and obnoxious anti-Semite who remains anonymous, “The Young Man” (Ryan Garbayo).
The ironic, semi-humorous analysis of the time and people is appropriately set in the cafe as a hub of Viennese social life. The noted patrons, meet, mingle, sip coffee and discuss current events during the twilight of the Hapsburg empire. The Waiter narrates, bridging the various scene changes, tying all together in a neat, substantial package. Familiar with the future renowned players, we acknowledge the abhorrent economic class divisions in the ironic cant of Stalin, who encourages the others to join him in revolt and a “new creation” of government. He foretells the empire’s destruction, saying that it is only right that it implode from the weight of its own self-engineered doom.
Stalin’s pronouncement is furthered by Wittgenstein who rails against females, anti-Semitism, and class hatred, pointing to the despair of the times when “men long for oblivion and suicide is everywhere.” He underscores Stalin’s points and carries threads of the argument with poetical philosophy, enhancing Stalin’s blunt, clever, lower class witticisms. Wittgenstein adds his own dour, cryptically funny prophecies during the course of his discussions with Gustav Mahler and Sigmund Freud.
Throughout the intriguing “sessions,” the Young Man periodically interjects himself into the conversations. The patrons are familiar with The Young Man’s loathsome anti-Semitic remarks, reflective of Vienna’s cultural ethos. They treat him as a pariah, with the ironic exception of Stalin who encourages him to join the proletariat’s revolution. The Young Man refuses because he is an “artist,” and has even written an opera in the style of his favorite composer, Wagner. Mahler and the others who are sympathetic to the plight of “starving artists” are repulsed by the Young Man’s arrogance, presumptive hatreds, and discriminatory attitudes. They might have liked his middling artwork, but his nature and persona drive them away, so that he is friendless and alone, left to wander along the path of the future as a psychopath or suicide.
The bulk of the action deals with Freud, Mahler and his wife, Alma, as Freud helps Mahler confront the problems he has with Alma. Freud insists that love is an answer, and the impulse toward death must be avoided. We learn that Gustav has forced Alma to give up her music to make him the center of her world. Mahler doesn’t understand Alma’s feelings of emptiness and her dissatisfaction that she has given up so much and has received nothing in return. Eskin cleverly emphasizes the comedic elements when Alma tells Gustav she dislikes her husband’s music, preferring hers to his, which she finds depressing, vulgar and military.
The heated exchange between Mahler and Alma is one of the high points of the play, along with the exchange between Stalin and Alma (she asks him to point his gun at her so she can feel alive); between Wittgenstein and The Young Man (whose identity the audience has figured out by this juncture); and between Mahler and Freud, who discusses the importance of not allowing oneself to fall in love with death. Eskin writes acute, crisp dialogue when his characters are fighting or arguing. The ensemble cast and the director, Villar-Hauser, negotiate this with ease, creating humor and nimbly delivering the characters’ wit. The irony, comedic elements and pithy import surprise and refresh. By the play’s conclusion, there is no resolution, only the forward movement toward a war to end all wars.
Freud and the others have resolved none of the problems in their personal lives. Indeed, we know they will continue along the paths they’ve begun, each more miserable than ever, with the exception of Stalin and The Young Man whom Freud has helped retrieve from suicidal thoughts. Stalin is relentless in his pursuit of revolution, looking forward to a “joyful apocalypse.” Freud has breathed life into The Young Man who has made up his mind to end his career in art so he can go into politics, having “survived something to live for the end of everything.” Freud has helped save his life, an unfortunate result, for millions will be destroyed by The Young Man’s twisted befriending of hatred in a second world war.
Eskin’s “what if” construct is a whimsical intellectual exercise made more interesting by his vivid use of dialogue to “imagine” Freud, the Mahlers, Stalin, Wittgenstein and The Young Man, well delivered by this talented ensemble of actors and Villar-Hauser’s forward direction. The playwright emphasizes the themes inherent in the 20th century: political upheaval and cultural upheaval are the inevitable result of denying the majority class an equal right to economic opportunity. This is clearly a warning for us in the 21st century as we face an increasing cultural economic divide. But see the play to be entertained and intellectually teased.
Final Analysis is being performed at the Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre at the Pershing Square Signature Center through October 5.