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Theater: Seductive Self-Delusion the Loves of Anatol

3 minute read
William A. Henry III

Romantic love can evoke tenderness and gentle devotion. But in many people it can also trigger a frenzy of possessiveness and mistrust. They believe their infatuation entitles them to impose nonnegotiable demands on desired partners; if disappointed they lash out, hoping to leave emotional wreckage in their wake. This adolescent view of love, celebrated in popular songs and puerile soap operas, is the besetting sin of the title character in The Loves of Anatol, a reworking of Arthur Schnitzler’s comedy of manners set in turn-of- the-century Vienna. To Anatol, the sweetest part of any affair is not an affectionate embrace but a self-aggrandizing recollection. Sex seems almost incidental to the autoerotic melodramas he concocts in his head.

Director Ellis Rabb and Collaborator Nicholas Martin have restructured Schnitzler’s episodic 1893 hit, and interpolated a separate later playlet about Anatol, less to modernize the surprisingly contemporary perspective than to point up the central character’s moral flaw. In what has become the framing story, Anatol (Stephen Collins) deposits with his friend Max (Philip Bosco) a box containing cherished mementos. The memorabilia introduce each scene as a flashback but also serve a deeper purpose: it becomes clear that what Anatol sought in his affairs was simply the token, the keepsake, the emblem of conquest. This self-centered preoccupation kept him from recognizing true love when it was proffered and caused him to see deep devotion where there was none. In the most touching moment, the audience can recognize, but Anatol cannot, that the woman he believes was the great love of his life (Pamela Sousa) could never abide his demands, and that she frolicked with Max precisely because he offered unfettered companionship.

Anatol, as Schnitzler titled the original play, is more often produced as a wry romance in which the hero seems dashing and vulnerable. But Rabb’s sardonic caricaturing of the self-delusory rakehell brings sense and coherence to the slapdash storytelling and echoes the mordant humor of Schnitzler’s better known Reigen, a sexual roundelay hinting at venereal disease that was filmed by Max Ophuls as La Ronde. Rabb’s resetting also captures the smirky, latently homosexual flavor of the exchange of titillating reminiscences between Anatol and Max.

Rabb’s cloyingly picturesque staging and Lawrence Miller’s mindlessly pretty set undercut the text, however, in an apparent attempt to make its bitter satire more palatable. During scene changes a pair of dancers dressed in dinner clothes move through conventional ballet and ballroom steps, introducing the very sentimentality the story means to blast.

Four actresses enjoy showy multiple roles, notably Michael Learned (Olivia Walton in the CBS TV series The Waltons) as both a brassy glamour girl and a cool society matron who wistfully deflects Anatol’s entreaties. Bosco plays all of Max’s scenes on one unctuous note. Collins brings energy if not enough desperate passion to Anatol’s farcical excess, and is quietly moving in the final scene when, his hormonal urges in decline, the older Anatol ruefully watches a younger man enmesh himself in the snares of pointless jealousy.

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