When David Hare’s The Blue Room opened on Broadway in December, 1998, it became part of a record-setting year for the prolific playwright. In a twelve-month period, the British author managed to send four of his latest plays across the Atlantic to New York’s stages. The others included The Judas Kiss, Amy’s View, and Hare’s one-man autobiographical staged memoir, Via Dolorosa.
The Blue Room is based on Reigen, a series of vignettes written by Dr. Arthur Schnitzler in 1896. Reigen, German for ‘‘round dance,’’ was set in Schnitzler’s own fin de siecle Vienna and depicted a number of characters in a continuous chain of sexual liaisons, suggesting that the meaningless physical relationships they shared, as well as venereal diseases they picked up along the way, were passed along in a mechanical, dehumanizing chain. When the work was actually performed in Vienna in 1921, it was closed by police for its scandalous sexual content. Actors in a Berlin production the same year were taken to court on obscenity charges. The film version, La Ronde, created by Max Ophuls in 1950, lifted some sense of the taboo surrounding the story and replaced it with a wistful nostalgia and only minor titillation.
In the introduction to his adaptation of the play, Hare claims he first learned about Schnitzler’s clever story as a boy, when his father promised him he could one day watch ‘‘his favorite film of all time.’’ More recently, it was director Sam Mendes who asked Hare to adapt Schnitzler’s work for a modernized stage version. For Hare, who has written many times about deception and dissatisfaction in relationships, the story was a natural draw. ‘‘[Schnitzler’s] essential subject is the gulf between what we imagine, what we remember, and what we actually experience,’’ the playwright suggests.
In Hare’s retelling, the story remains the same, ten characters fall in and out of bed with each other, never quite finding fulfillment but the setting and some of the ideas have changed. No longer Vienna, the backdrop for The Blue Room is described ambiguously as ‘‘one of the great cities of the world, in the present day.’’ Although it is not a major issue in the play, AIDS has replaced less harmful venereal diseases as a communicable worry in the minds of some of Hare’s characters, and the shock audiences may have experienced upon witnessing a staged sexual roundelay nearly a century ago has turned into curious titillation for New Yorkers interested in seeing a famous film star in the buff (a reference to star Nicole Kidman’s nude scene). As critic Charles Isherwood noted in Variety, ‘‘At the last turn of the century, when the original was written, it was considered too dangerous to be published and later inspired police action; on the cusp of the next, the new text has become virtually insignificant, lost in the swirl of celebrity hype that has surrounded the production.’’ Seemingly the more things change, the more they stay the same: audiences still flocked to both productions.
Scene One: The Girl and The Cab Driver
The first scene of The Blue Room is an encounter between The Girl and The Cab Driver. The Girl is a prostitute, young, amateurish, and new to the work. She is waiting in a park, dressed in a short, black leather skirt, trying to catch the eye of a potential customer when The Cab Driver walks past her, twice. Taking the initiative, The Girl invites The Cab Driver home with her. The savvy driver knows her game and tells her he doesn’t have any money. She persists, telling him she doesn’t care about money, and they end up walking down to the nearby river in order to have sex off the main pathway in the park.
The lights darken, and a projected slide reads ‘‘THREE MINUTES,’’ the time it takes for The Cab Driver to finish and pull his pants back up. When the lights return, the driver brushes himself off, pulls The Girl up off the ground, and heads off to go back to work. In spite of her earlier claim, The Girl asks The Cab Driver for some money. He refuses and leaves, while she promises, ‘‘I’ll be here tomorrow.’’
Scene Two: The Cab Driver and The Au Pair
With the sound of an Elvis Presley ballad echoing at a dance in the outside ballroom, The Cab Driver and The Au Pair duck into a darkened storage closet. The Au Pair, whose name is Marie, is foreign, and her job is caring for a family and their children. She has just met The Cab Driver, who now introduces himself as Fred. He has brought her into the storage room, he says, to escape the dance. His real motive is to seduce the young lady.
Before The Au Pair will agree to have sex with The Cab Driver, she tells him he must reassure her that ‘‘it means something.’’ Parroting her request, Fred tells Marie, ‘‘It means something. I promise.’’ The lights go out and the slide projection reads ‘‘NINE MINUTES.’’ As a dim light slowly reveals the two of them atop some crushed cardboard boxes, The Au Pair asks her Cab Driver what he feels. Fred stammers that he doesn’t know. ‘‘Feel’s a big word,’’ he complains. But the experience seems to have had a greater effect on him than his encounter with The Girl in the park. He admits he feels confused and is in no hurry to leave this girl. Instead, he asks her to stay a bit while he goes to get David Hare them both a beer. He heads off on his mission while The Au Pair sits alone and the lights go out.
Scene Three: The Au Pair and The Student
The third scene takes place in the fancy modern kitchen of the lavish home where The Au Pair works. She is seated at a table in the middle of the room writing a letter to The Cab Driver, who she recently met at the dance, when The Student comes downstairs from his studies for a glass of water. He asks about a phone call he has been expecting, then takes his water back up to his room. A moment later, the phone rings. Apparently it is The Student again, asking for another drink. The Au Pair hangs up the phone, and just as she finishes pouring a fresh glass The Student reappears. It is obvious he has manufactured the need for more water as an excuse to see her again.
This time down The Student wastes no time. He begins flirting with The Au Pair, complementing her shirt and shoes, before kissing her and unbuttoning her clothes. For modesty’s sake, or perhaps to preserve her job, The Au Pair asks The Student to at least close the blinds before they continue, which he does. As he pushes her up onto the table, she warns him they may be interrupted by the door, or by the phone call he is expecting from his friend, but The Student pretends not care. The lights blacken momentarily and a slide projection reads ‘‘FORTY-FIVE SECONDS,’’ before the doorbell begins ringing. The mood is broken. The Student panics. He asks The Au Pair to check the door while he quickly dresses himself. When she returns his manner is changed. He is once again the son of the family in charge and announces he is leaving for the cafe. Instead of kind words or tenderness, he leaves The Au Pair with a directive to tell his friend where he has gone, should he finally call.
Scene Four: The Student and The Married Woman
The ‘‘friend’’ The Student was anticipating in the previous scene was apparently The Married Woman, Emma, who appears in Scene Four. Up in his bedroom, The Student, whose name is now revealed as Anton, has been preparing for her visit. He has assembled a collection of hors d’oeuvres wrapped in an aluminum container and a bottle of cognac. Offstage, the doorbell rings, and The Married Woman is greeted by The Au Pair. When Emma makes it upstairs, she is obviously a public figure the wife of a prominent politician who is trying to keep her tryst with The Student a secret. She has worn a scarf and dark glasses and complains to her soon-to-be lover that she must not be discovered, because the press have no values or respect and would make her life miserable.
To make matters worse, or at least more dangerous, The Married Woman is a friend of The Student’s parents. The two briefly discuss her marital woes (she is unhappy in her husband’s world of deception and lies), and The Student actually admits he is in love with her. Then they fall into bed together. The lights are only out briefly, long enough for a slide projection to read ‘‘0 MINUTES,’’ before the room is bright again and The Student sits on the edge of the bed, frustrated and nervously impotent. While he tries to find excuses for his condition and berates himself, she tells jokes and tries to make light of the situation. Finally, The Married Woman solves the problem. She tells The Student to simply lie very still on the bed. She stands over him and the lights fade to black. The slide projection now reads ‘‘THIRTY-TWO MINUTES’’ and, in the darkness, she murmurs in a satisfied voice, ‘‘Oh my beautiful boy.’’
Quickly, however, The Married Woman realizes she must get back home to her husband. While they both dress they agree they will see each other the next day, in public, at a political rally for her husband, and two days later they will...
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