The Hoarder of Love

Chicks dig Anatol, and Anatol digs chicks. Exactly why the ladies are drawn to the title character of Arthur Schnitzler’s play Anatol is a bit of a mystery. As played by Mike Ryan in Aurora Theatre Company’s production, he’s a very average guy, not notably attractive or charismatic. He’s fickle, jealous, easily flustered, weak-willed and peevish. He is, however, monomaniacally devoted to romance—the kind of guy who wins women over simply by laying it on thick and not giving up until they give in. He convinces himself that he’s madly in love with each one, whether or not he’s already madly in love with someone else. Anatol loves not wisely but too prolifically.

Mike Ryan, Delia MacDougall and Tim Kniffin in Anatol. Photo by David Allen.

The Aurora production is also the world premiere of a new translation of the play that the company commissioned from Berkeley Schnitzler scholar Margret Schaefer. The witty dialogue flows easily and drolly throughout the show while preserving a distinctly period feel in Schaefer’s English translation from the original German, and Aurora founding artistic director Barbara Oliver and a small, sharp cast keeps the pace brisk without becoming overly antic.

Written in 1893, Anatol was the Viennese author’s first play. His work was apparently controversial in his day because of its indiscreet depiction of what was going on in bedrooms all over Vienna, but what’s surprising about Anatol is less its content than its structure. It hardly feels like a play at all. It’s almost hard to believe that it was originally written as a play rather than adapted from a novel, because the scenes have no connection to each other. In fact, as it turns out, the play is made up of six of nine short sketches about the title character and his amorous exploits, so the lack of any overarching dramatic arc is no illusion.

It’s a series of vignettes in which Anatol and his friend Max are the only recurring characters; the rest are a seemingly endless succession of women that are the objects of Anatol’s romantic attentions, but each woman exists only for the space of one scene, never to be spoken of again. When he’s engaged in one scene and about to be married in the next, everything that’s gone before tells us that the woman he’s about to marry can’t possibly be the woman he was engaged to before, because that’s just not the kind of guy Anatol is. Either way it scarcely matters, because the woman we’re dealing with in that scene isn’t his fiancée anyway.

What this means is that Anatol makes a fabulous showcase for Delia MacDougall, who gets to play many different women over the course of the play. First she’s a breezy and pettish flibbertigibbet whom Anatol wants to hypnotize to find out if she’s been faithful. (Not that he’s been faithful to her, but that’s different.) Then she’s a worldly Russian circus performer who Anatol is convinced is in love with him, when in fact she can’t place him at all. She plays a now married and very proper and disapproving former lover; a blithe and boorish showgirl; a haunted, slavishly devoted fiancée; and a coarse and clingy lover who doesn’t know she’s an ex. Playing with a variety of accents and outsize personalities, MacDougall is a cornucopia of delights.

But it’s the amorous Anatol at the fickle heart of the piece, and Mike Ryan makes him a terribly amusing antihero, if not exactly a likeable one. He’s brimming with nervous energy and can’t help overromanticizing everything, even his own fickleness. He’s the kind of guy who’ll pitch a fit when someone breaks up with him, never mind that he was just that moment about to break up with her. In fact, he pitches a lot of fits when any one women shows herself to be anything other than hopelessly devoted to him, never mind that he’s rarely if ever seeing just one woman at a time. Both he and his friend Max are very cultured high-society types accustomed to the finer things in life.

Tim Kniffin’s Max is cynical and cool as a cucumber, although even he becomes appalled with Anatol’s lack of character in some of the later vignettes in the show—which is curious, because you’d think by then he’d be used to his friend’s caddish behavior. There’s also a sly, amused reserve to Kniffin’s portrayal that makes you wonder about his own love life, which may or may not be any less prolific than Anatol’s, but in any case he has the good sense to keep a lid on it. Wiley Naman Strasser puts up with Anatol’s nonsense admirably as a variety of waiters and butlers. John Iacovelli’s rotating set creates a fanciful atmosphere with its deep blues and reds, and Anna Oliver’s period costumes add a touch of (upper) class to all the bad behavior.

It’s a funny show, and the cast is terrifically entertaining. Just as Max gets increasingly fed up with Anatol’s antics, however, it’s hard for the audience not to root against the serial romantic more and more ardently as the play goes on. Some of MacDougall’s women are sympathetic and others are as appalling as he, but either way all you want is for them to be free from him as soon as possible. Anatol hoards so much of the love in the world for himself that one becomes increasingly convinced that he deserves love less than almost anyone else.

Through May 13
Aurora Theatre Company
2081 Addison St.
Berkeley, CA

Show #41 of 2012, attended April 13.


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