The Amorous Adventures of Anatol, Morris Panych’s adaptation of an 1893 play about a playboy, fails to seduce a contemporary audience.
It comes on way too strong, for starters, beginning with that terrible title. It sounds like what a 15-year-old chess champ might call the secret journal he keeps under his mattress. Is there anything less sexy than alliteration?
The original, simply called Anatol, is by Arthur Schnitzler, the promiscuous Austrian playwright best known for La Ronde (which comes back around to Soulpepper this spring, incidentally). La Ronde is a sexual game of tag: 10 dialogues between lovers, one lover always continuing into the next scene with a new partner, until we cycle back to the first.
Anatol, an earlier work by Schnitzler, is a variation on the theme: A Viennese aristocrat makes his way through seven scenes with seven lovers, learning little, and ending up pretty much where he began.
Anatol, played at Toronto’s Tarragon Theatre (as in the adaptation’s 2008 premiere at the Vancouver Playhouse) by Mike Shara, believes he is an incurable romantic, but he’s actually a self-pitying narcissist. As a recurring gag, Panych has him brag about how handsome and charming he is to his long-suffering friend Max, a psychiatrist played by Robert Persichini, whose dry wit and reliable timing enliven the production immeasurably. Without much of that charm on display in Shara’s skin-deep performance, however, Anatol’s just not the most pleasant company for 90 minutes – especially since he doesn’t seem to enjoy any of his liaisons all that much.
Nicole Underhay, the Shaw Festival star, plays the parade of ladies who march through the hypocritically jealous Anatol’s life; the play seems to agree with its protagonist that all women are the same. Underhay makes her strongest impression as a pair of married women – one who runs into Anatol at the shops after their affair has ended; the other sneaking into his house for an early-evening quickie. In the former, she burns with regret and desire; in the latter, she paints a poignant picture of the banality of betrayal.
Schnitzler alternated sillier scenes with more serious ones, but Panych has padded the whole script with so many setups and punchlines that it verges on screwball comedy. His jokes can be very funny, but only about one out of three lands here – a ratio that lends the evening a feeling of desperation. (“Did anyone ever tell you your jokes aren’t funny?” Anatol asks Max at one point after yet another bout of breathless banter; Panych has a bad habit of metatheatrically apologizing to his audiences.)
Schnitzler, a real-life Anatol who described himself once as a “hypochondriac of love,” kept a monthly record of orgasms, given and received. That charming biographical nugget comes to mind while gazing at Ken MacDonald’s set, a wall of drawers that looks like a giant card catalogue.
Perhaps Schnitzler, more accurately, was a librarian of lust. He does almost seem interested in issues of class and gender imbalance in Anatol – there’s a shred of pity here for lower-class women who are used, then discarded, by bourgeois men – but this is somewhat lost in Panych’s adaptation. The Canadian playwright gives the dialogue a contemporary veneer, making the time period nebulous and the sexual stakes unclear. What to think of Emily, briefly Anatol’s fiancée, who calls herself “a tramp” – an expression that didn’t exist in Schnitzler’s time, and is old-fashioned in ours – and who thanks her future husband for having overlooked her past love affairs?
“Women are a riddle. Men are simply a joke,” Anatol says ruefully. Pretty good line, but a poor guiding philosophy for playwriting in this day and age.