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Playing Blue 

A small San Jose company pulls off a sexy, witty romp

Wednesday, Feb 27 2002
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Arthur Schnitzler fans may remember 1999 as a banner year, when their man enjoyed two modern revivals starring Nicole Kidman. There was Eyes Wide Shut, based on a Schnitzler novella, and a Broadway run of The Blue Room, a David Hare play based on Schnitzler's Reigen, or La Ronde. Schnitzler's original play is a merry-go-round of sexual hookups in belle époque Vienna and examines class differences by showing how the soldier flirts with the whore, how the bourgeois bachelor flirts with the maid, etc. The Blue Room turns the same witty lens on 1990s London.

It starts with a taxi driver -- instead of a soldier -- chatting with a cockney-accented prostitute. "I haven't got any money," he says, "I spent the lot on sushi." But the prostitute is new at her job and just wants company on a dismal night. Then the cabdriver has sex with a Spanish au pair, who fucks a university student, who's having an affair with a posh woman married to a politician; the play moves up and down the social ladder. Schnitzler's observations about class and denial were subtle, but Hare's streamlined version gets straight to the point. "Don't call me sir," his student snaps at the au pair. "I hate that. Those days are over."

Schnitzler's merry-go-round also has a deeper psychological resonance, which Hare emphasizes by paring the cast down to a primordial couple. One actress plays all the women in The Blue Room and one actor plays all the men. The prostitute and the married woman and the model are all just variations on a theme. "Schnitzler makes the Freudian suggestion that we fall in love not with a person but with our own idea of that person," writes Hare in an essay on the play. His two actors, purposefully and consciously, are imagoes in shifting disguise. Even this reading shifts as you watch, because other suggestions about identity creep into Hare's dialogue. "Do you think any of us is ever one person?" the aristocrat muses. "Don't you think we change all the time?"

Michael Butler gives the show a hip, suggestive treatment at the Theater on San Pedro Square in San Jose. (The small company has managed to swing a Bay Area premiere.) Peter Maradudin's red and blue lights create a mood; a background scrim shows an apple in vaguely sexual ink blots. Björk and Moby thump through speakers between scenes while the actors change in silhouette behind the scrim. Butler meshes the theme of transformation by staging a frank, hot, shadowy striptease, and although the stripping gets gratuitous, I imagine it will sell tickets, the way Kidman's naked body sold tickets in New York.

No one appears naked in this production. Stephanie Gularte comes close but clutches a sheet to her body most of the time. Her higher-class roles are strong -- the Catholic actress, praying before she sleeps with a playwright ("I'm not a heathen like you"), may be the most charming -- but she wavers a little with the cockney prostitute and the Spanish au pair. I've never seen Gularte before, apparently because she's a Sacramento performer who heads a company called Delta King Theater. I have seen Jonathan Rhys Williams, though. He has performed locally and reliably for Theatreworks and the Aurora. He does solid work here as the university student, the politician, and especially the Scottish playwright, wooing the American model with flattery and candles and even a song -- inserted by Butler -- in a caddish way that makes me think of the Irish playwright Martin McDonagh. (I suspect Hare of making allusions to McDonagh, but I don't have any evidence.) However, Rhys Williams' off roles, like the taxi driver, feel as rocky as Gularte's.

One problem with The Blue Room is how severely Hare has pared the original play down. His nameless characters become types more easily than Schnitzler's; they seem as skeletal as the spindly metal props that serve here as kitchen counters, beds, and dressing-room tables. Schnitzler studied human mating rituals in more detail than Hare has, so Hare relies on the trick of displaying the length of each interlude (45 seconds for the student, "15 minutes exactly" for the organized politician) to land most of his class jokes. Ninety minutes of sex antics can make a skimpy night of theater; at the same time, once the point has been made, you need no more than 90 minutes. Hare has written a graceful arabesque of sex and class -- a gesture, not a full-canvas drama -- that works as a happy variation on Schnitzler's timeless theme.

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