Historical flights of imagination have, until now, been the delight of plays by David Grimm. He imagined Moliere on Park Avenue, made Christopher Marlowe a British spy and placed a modern sex comedy in the exuberantly rebellious 17th century Restoration.
In "Tales From Red Vienna," Grimm takes us back to Austria, 1920, after the humiliating loss of its empire and a world war. He is dead serious this time -- really, three-act Ibsen serious -- which turns out to be engrossing for a while but surprisingly pointless.
The drama does offer a major change of pace for Nina Arianda, last seen accepting her 2012 Tony for her portrayal of a dazzling, sexually manipulative actress in "Venus in Fur." Here she plays the subdued, suddenly destitute (but still sexual) widow of a wealthy man who died 18 months earlier in the war. With theater-royalty Kathleen Chalfant as the wise, comforting, bawdy housekeeper, the production, directed with acute emotional detail by Kate Whoriskey, attempts to create a snapshot of a world roiled by defeat, plundering ethnicities and wounded pride.
But Grimm is going after more than a snapshot. One can imagine that he became obsessed with a historical fact -- that respectable widows survived in secret as prostitutes, surreptitiously walking the streets after 10 p.m. in their mourning clothes and veils. Instead of developing that undeniably harrowing image, alas, he just seems to have dropped an ordinary play around it.
What we get is a rather beguiling, unlikely romance between the widow and a socialist Hungarian journalist (Michael Esper), whom we first see as one of her anonymous johns. They are later formally introduced by a fancy friend (Tina Benko), a petty woman who repeatedly flounces into the widow's shabby old-world flat but never feels like more than an annoying convenience.
The result is all plot and little deeper meaning, which suggests this might have been better as a story-driven screenplay. Grimm drops in foreshadowing about the future for the sweet Jewish grocer's son (Michael Goldsmith) and bits of loaded gossip about socialists, Hungarians and "filthy Reds." John Lee Beatty's sets, with an eerie black mourning-veil scrim, say more about that world than does the extremely well-performed talk. Since the references aren't explained, we are left with plenty of background but little context in which to place them, much less to care.
WHAT "Tales From Red Vienna"
WHERE Manhattan Theatre Club, 131 W. 55th St.
INFO $89; 212-581-1212; nycitycenter.org
BOTTOM LINE Engrossing history for a while, but pointless plot.