‘Manhattan Blues’ at Wiener Salon

Christoph Braendle’s powerful play of angst and isolation: “One’s homeland is most beautiful from a distance–not a place, but a feeling”

On The Town | Cristina Rotaru | June 2011

Once again, like so many times before, New York City has taken its toll on an aspiring actress, this time incarnated in Stephanie Schmiderer, driving her away from its promise of greatness towards the verge of insanity, and the entire audience along with her.

"Manhattan Blues" tells the tale of immigration, of the making and breaking of dreams and what it feels like to admit defeat. Spun out of the dense interaction between autobiographical material and fiction, Christoph Braendle’s newest play provides genuine feelings of angst and isolation, conveyed without apology, by means of a 65-minute monologue.

A decade ago, the protagonist followed her dream traveling from Vienna to Manhattan to become a world-famous stage performer. Now, many failed attempts to become a star and several washed-up relationships later, she decides to head back to the country she once left behind and try to regain her old identity. We find her on a cold winter day in Central Park, bags packed and waiting for a taxi, bidding her last farewell to the City, right by a bench where she has often passed a lonely day.

Yet something is amiss. As she would soon discover, her most beloved place in all of New York is occupied by an intruder, a homeless man, who doesn’t seem even remotely impressed by the claims of ownership she makes to her very special hideout. In fact, this lonely stranger is quite unmoved and does not so much as respond to any of the accusations and threats the actress displays.

Spiteful at first, then increasingly trusting, she gradually surrenders to a stream of consciousness that takes us into a world of anguish, and it seems our ears (which is to say, the stranger’s) are the first to ever witness such an outburst fueled by years of ongoing frustration.

We discover a worn out middle-aged woman filled with regret, who, in all her courage to start a new life, forgot the meaning of a home, and in this independence, lost her way. Her cry is passionate and remorseful and sounds like a eulogy for so many lost moments and missed occasions. Men have come into her life as quickly as they have gone, as have friends, and jobs, and hopes. The only thing that remained throughout the years was her unraveling self-confidence and an overall sense of disillusion, the result of a deracinated state of mind. Her once-upon-a-time affinity for Shakespeare’s role of Juliette now becomes an obsession, leaving its romantic scar exposed, and all the innocence of youth seems hopelessly lost.

The absurdity of the situation of a woman screaming her heart out to an unresponsive homeless person lies somewhere at the border of comic and repulsive, and the dramatic effect is enhanced by the arrival of a Mexican street musician, who disrupts the flow of her thoughts over and over with his loud and discordant tune, "La Cucaracha". A wonderful performance by Hubert Wolf, whose seemingly naïve song and thick Spanish accent turn out to hide more wisdom than the woman’s countless years spent among intellectuals and artists.

The chemistry between the actors is undeniable; both part of the company of the Wiener Salon Theater, and in fact, "Manhattan Blues" is a joint collaboration both on and off stage. Swiss-born writer Christoph Braendle, whose previous works have long been acclaimed in Austria, Germany and Switzerland, was joined in production of the multi-layered ensemble by his wife, Anna Braendle and director Sandra Schüddekopf. The result is an effortless interaction between a close circle of like-minded people; each independent in their own field, each aided by the other, and the performance at large is at win.

This play has a more personal touch than others, perhaps because there were exactly 6 people in the audience, myself included, allowing the actress to hold each of us individually with a look more than once, or the fact that we were offered tea to keep warm the whole time. One thing is clear: The feeling of authenticity remained conserved in the cold of the room, and probably never left.

The story surrounding the location of the play is almost as intriguing as its content. Intended as an outdoors show in the blistering cold of January, the inauguration and the following eight performances took place in the courtyard of Bäckerstrasse 2, a site that was meant to increase perception of both actors and their public by a keen sharpening of the senses. No special lights or sounds were used to re-create the numbing atmosphere of a frozen Central Park; Viennese winters, too, can be ruthless.

The April reenactment was planned for the same setting. However, the medieval tower in the interior court of the Wiener Salon Theater has stolen all the glory. As one of the three out of more than a dozen that remain in Vienna, it needs restoration. Unable to use the space as their venue, the producers found support in fellow artist Constantin Luser and moved the production nearby to Sonnenfeldgasse 3, property of Thomas Levenitschnig.

Perhaps more than a change of location, this altered situation has brought about a whole new perception of the play, say members of the team, finally separated from the grotesque environment that gave it birth and was bound to from the first.

Last summer, the elderly long-term tenant of the tower passed away. It was weeks before anyone found her body. So it is for this reason that "Manhattan Blues", although written long before, was revived in her honour, as homage to human isolation, loneliness and oblivion. Like in a romantic tale, many today are trapped in towers.

Some are saved, others are not. But all are alone.

"There are far too many crazy people in this world," Christoph Braendle writes, "but me? You can trust me."

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