Sex. Youth. Drugs. The themes of Pains of Youth, a play written more than 80 years ago by Ferdinand Bruckner, are decidedly modern. In it, a group of twenty-something medical students engage in self-destructive behavior to combat boredom and find purpose and meaning in their lives. Picture MTV's The Real World in post-World War I Vienna, and you will get the idea. Heck, it even contains the requisite lesbian. The 7th Sign theater company has revived the work at TriBeCa's Access Theater in a flawed production that does not convey the power and intelligence of Bruckner's play. Instead, it relies on shock over substance. But lesbian kisses and wanton drug abuse are hardly shocking to the MTV generation, and these moments only serve to punctuate an otherwise dull show.
The play centers on seven young people living in a boarding house in Vienna ("seven strangers picked to live in a house…"). As several of them near graduation from medical school, they have to deal with the uncertainties of grown-up life in postwar Europe and face the disillusionment left after the war.
The day before Marie (Kari Floberg) is to graduate from medical school, the sadomasochistic Freder (Mick Lauer) reveals that her boyfriend Petrell (Josh Heine), whom she disturbingly refers to as "Little Boy," has fallen in love with another medical student, Irene (Amy Ewing). Marie, feeling distraught and alone, falls into the arms of her manic roommate, Desiree (Sheila Carrasco). During all of this, Freder performs the ultimate manipulation: transforming the character of the house's maid, Lucy (Donna Lazar), from trusting and innocent to bawdy and wanton.
Let it be said that this is an ambitious play to produce. In general, translations (the original was in German) can be overly formal, and the source material, although quite provocative, is heavy-handed. It takes an extremely seasoned director and group of actors to achieve the balance between theatrics and subtlety that the play needs to succeed. Unfortunately, this production's cast and directors, all relative newcomers, show that they are still green.
Director Charlie Wilson, assisted by Mike Fitzgerald, leaves the cast to navigate the awkward interactions alone. As a result, for a play about sex there is surprisingly little chemistry. Also, many of the actors screamed out most of their lines, making it nearly impossible to understand the dialogue. It seemed that every emotion—love, hate, anger, fear, happiness, etc.—was conveyed through the same heightened, screechy tones. If the play was performed in German, this technique might be effective, but the Access Theater is a small black box and requires greater control. Although the actors, most if not all theater school grads, appeared passionate about their characters, their passion seemed misguided.
The play's rhythm was interrupted by unnecessary set changes, making a long production even longer. The cast, acting as stagehands, would move furniture around, perhaps to indicate a new room or to offer the audience a different perspective on the action. It was never clear why this was done. Wilson would have better served the play by keeping the sets the same throughout.
Still, the production was not without merit. The costumes, designed by Katja Andreiev, capture the time period and the characters remarkably well. Desiree's kimono-esque nightgown ideally suited a sexually liberated free spirit. And as Lucy changed from housekeeper to glorified streetwalker, her clothes went from dowdy to decadent. Andreiev's research and attention to detail was apparent in all of her creations.
But ultimately, clever costumes are not enough to save this muddled production. Pains of Youth offers a window into an era not very different from our own. It is a worthy play in need of a more fully realized presentation.