Perhaps the one world-theater figure left undervalued many years after his death is Arthur Schnitzler. Esteemed by the cognoscenti, his work performed intermittently (though often in bastardized versions), and dimly known to many theatergoers, he has yet to achieve the honors due a genius in both drama and fiction. Unfortunately, the updating of his comedy Reigen by David Hare (rhymes with Guare) as The Blue Room will not add many laurels to the great Austrian’s reputation.
Reigen (“Round Dance”), known mostly from Max Ophuls’s movie version, La Ronde – a flamboyant but facile Ophulsification – is a play that astutely views the sexual act as also a sexual leveler and psychological placebo, but only fleetingly satisfying in any capacity. It is both a dance of sex (A screws B, B screws C, and so on until J screws A) and a dance of death – the death of love, as various partners from diverse social strata declare feelings for one another that are transparently transient.
What Schnitzler achieves, and Hare pretty much loses, is a careful demonstration of how sex takes on varying significance depending on the status of the participants, and of how emotions change from before intercourse to after. Yet Hare and his clever director, Sam Mendes, have conceived this modernization as a bravura display piece for one actor and one actress, each playing five parts. That way, however, the sense of a cross section of humankind caught in the act fades, and the focus becomes the versatility of the two performers. Similarly, the startling minimalist décor by Mark Thompson and neon-edged abstract lighting by Hugh Vanstone further detract from Schnitzler’s detailed and minutely documented societal and existential exploration.
Still, if all you want is two highly attractive performers – she an Australian-American movie star, he a British-stage leading man – exhibiting their skills and bodies in a sufficiently sophisticated but slick vehicle, more Hare than Schnitzler, The Blue Room fills the bill.
I doubt whether there exists a young actress anywhere today who better combines physical allure with histrionic gifts than Nicole Kidman. Here she manages five idiosyncratic and duly varied performances that will not be outshone by an almost continuous dishabille and brief nudity (mostly from the back) that would be enough to eclipse many a lesser talent. For Miss Kidman’s is a great and very nearly flawless beauty, extending from hair to toes and skipping nothing, unless, unlike me, you feel that a tall, willowy, essentially girlish figure is inferior to womanly copiousness. But be forewarned: You will see much more of Miss Kidman’s face, legs, and feet, superb as they are, than of her torso.
I dwell on body so much because that is what the hype has been all about, dishonest in hype’s usual way. You get more nudity on the masculine side, from Iain Glen, an equally fine performer and not inconsiderable looker. But what with capitalization on Miss Kidman’s star aura, and underestimation of female and homosexual audiences, Glen’s even greater self-baring has gotten less publicity.
The hundred uninterrupted minutes go by without boring you, but do not expect major erotic, any more than artistic, stimulation. No doubt intentionally, the essence of eroticism – the passionately sensual interplay of two performers – has been downplayed, if not exactly curbed. Moreover, what was incomparably daring a century ago (1897, and then in 1900, only privately printed) is mere marginal titillation today. And Hare, to his credit, was not simply after sexual jokiness, although he may still have overemphasized it.