Fin-de-siècle Vienna was a city of elegant waltzes, erotic art and witty café conversations. But underneath the shimmering surface, evil overtook the city. In Otho Eskin’s one-act play, “Final Analysis” (no relation to the 1992 Richard Gere film thriller of the same title), a group of real-life Viennese-Jewish artists and thinkers of the period debate the perils that await them with the rise of Hitler. The play opened last week in Hell’s Kitchen, after winning seven awards last summer at the Midtown International Theatre Festival.
Directed by Ludovica Villar-Hauser, “Final Analysis” begins the day after the opening of Franz Lehar’s sparkling operetta, “Gypsy Love,” in 1910. It follows Gustav Mahler (Ezra Barnes), Ludwig Wittgenstein (Michael Satow), and Sigmund Freud (Gannon McHale) as they relate both to one another and to an unbalanced young painter (Ryan Garbayo) with virulently anti-Semitic attitudes. When Joseph Stalin (Tony Naumovski) unsuccessfully urges the intellectuals to help organize a Communist cell, there is little doubt that totalitarianism is just around the corner.
While Eskin’s paternal grandparents were Russian Jews, the playwright was not raised Jewish. After serving for two decades as an American diplomat in Syria, Yugoslavia, Iceland, and East Germany, he turned to playwriting. Of his half-dozen works, the best known is “Duet,” about a meeting between the 19th-century French Jewish actress Sarah Bernhardt and her rival, the Italian actress, Eleanora Duse.
While some of the characters in “Final Analysis” never met in real life, the play was inspired by an actual session that took place in 1910 between Mahler and Freud, at a time when Mahler’s marriage was faltering because of the infidelity of his non-Jewish wife, Alma (Elizabeth Jasicki). Eskin imagined what happened during that conversation, which was also the subject of last year’s German film, “Mahler on the Couch.”
Historians disagree about the significance of the fact that, a century ago, the cultural elite of Vienna were disproportionately Jewish; some see Jews as having been, simply, part of the professional bourgeois class, while others note that Jews — no matter their success — remained vulnerable and despised. Eskin told The Jewish Week that the figures in his play “reacted quite differently” to their Jewish identity; Mahler converted to Catholicism, while Wittgenstein — whose parents were both brought up Christian — and Freud seemed largely indifferent to it.
While, according to Freud, the drive for love (Eros) motivates much of human behavior, the death drive (Thanatos) plays an equally powerful role. According to Eskin, Freud’s experience in Vienna was central to the development of his theories, since it forced him to confront the “darkness” under the “imperial capital’s glittering façade.”
“Final Analysis” runs through Oct. 5 at the Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 W. 42nd St. For tickets, $25-$95, call TicketCentral at (212) 279-4200 or visit www.ticketcentral.com.