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A CurtainUp Review
Professor Bernhardi

Who is not with me is against me —Professor Bernhardi
Sam L Toutsouvas as Dr. Bernhard
(Photo: Jill Usdan)
In this absorbing but rarely revived play by the renowned Austro-Hungarian playwright Arthur Schnitzler (1835 – 1893) a decision is made by Jewish professor and doctor of internal medicine Dr. Oskar Bernhardi (Sam Tsoutsouvas). He will not allow a priest (Markus Potter) to give the last rites to a Christian patient who is close to death.

The scene is the private teaching medical clinic where Bernhardi is the director. A woman brought there following a botched back-street abortion has no idea that she will shortly be dead of sepsis poisoning and is in a euphoric state from a dose of camphor given by Bernhardi. His decision, although disputed, appears to be sound and compassionate.

Summoned by a nurse, the priest insists that unless he is allowed to see her the woman will “die in sin.” Berhardi blocks the priest’s path to her room as he is convinced that the sight of the priest will surely let the woman know that she is dying. The woman (unseen) dies before the matter is decided, but not before she has been told by the nurse that a priest has arrived. This begins a turbulent and soon to be public confrontation between the medical practitioners and the conflicted members of the clinic’s board, some of whom would like to use the rapidly escalating controversial situation to unseat Bernhardi, especially in light of the rampant, vigorously politicized anti-Semitism that exists in pro-Catholic 1900 Vienna.

Originally cut and censored by the Austrians prior to its first performance in 1912 and then banned from being performed by the Nazis during the 1930s and ‘40s, Professor Bernhardi is seeing the light of day for the first time (in English) in New York. It's an ambitious production presented by the Marvel Rep now in its second season. Possibly its three-hour length and its large cast have prevented it from achieving more popularity on the English-speaking stages, although it was successfully revived in the London fringe in 2005. The Marvel Rep is not using the London production's translation, but a new and admirable (to these ears) one by a Connecticut professor GJ Weinberger.

Professor Bernhardi has been (according to its director Lenny Leibowitz) whittled down (not censored) to three hours from the original five-hour/five acts version. This doesn’t seem to have affected either its continuity or its ability to keep the audience at the performance I attended from being glued to every one of play’s lengthy debates and disputations.

Pivotal in making the play tingle with tenacity is the performance of Sam Tsoutsouvas. He brings to the role of Bernhardi a charming and refreshing glint of grace that stands tall (although he is short and stocky) in the face of the relentlessly stiff-necked, autocratic attitudinizing of the other characters. Another outstanding performance is by Markus Potter as Reverend Franz Reder,who holds his ground notably in a tense scene in which he and Bernhardi have a trade off of each other’s religious and philosophical convictions.

Also impressive are the performances given by Chris Kipiniak, the aggressively undermining Dr. Ebenwald; Nathan Brisby, the sneaky staff resident Hochroitzpointer; Jill Usdan, doubling as a nurse and a secretary; and long-time theater veteran Geddeth Smith as Dr. Cyprian, a professor of nervous disorders who stands in support of Bernhardi’s motives and ethics. All the other members of the supporting cast (most of whom are also in rehearsal for The Threepenny Opera to be performed in repertory with Professor Bernhardi— and reviewed at Curtainup.) respond well to the prescribed rigidity presumably enforced through Leibowitz’s firm direction.

Although the play is extremely wordy it is not so irrefutably dense with political posturing that we can’t appreciate its slyly satirical underpinnings. Director Liebowitz and his company are to be commended for this mostly gratifying dramatic experience, as part of season devoted to “provocative and incendiary” plays.

Considering that the play has eighteen characters and all but four have Dr. in front of their names, you may rightly assume that the bulk of the play is composed of their self-serving, lengthy diatribes on the kinds of ethical and moral values that will support their own agendas. The initial incident, while also putting a damper on an up-coming money-raising gala, incites largely the anti-Semitic public and press to embark on a witch-hunt demanding a trial.

Neither a conviction or a prison sentence deters Bernhardi from voicing his outrage about the appointment to the staff of a merely competent Christian doctor over a more skillful Jewish doctor. Philosophical arguments abound (think Shaw at his most pontificating); as do the oft-repeated practical considerations and realities that face the clinic’s board members who are, with few exceptions, inclined to abandon ship.

The prison sentence is light and Bernhardi’s return to society fosters a new set of problems. Typical of Schnitzler (probably best know for his provocative sexual romp Reigen, popularized by the 1950 French film La Ronde) there is a prickly, not quite tongue-in-cheek resolution (don’t be surprised to hear this) that will put a smile on your face.

A few pieces of furniture in designer Tijana Bjelajac’s simple but functional setting are easily reconfigured to indicate the clinic’s anteroom, consulting and conference rooms, as well as a drawing room in Bernhardi’ home and an office in the Ministry of Education. Despite its modest production values, Professor Bernhardi should prove a stimulating treat for those with only limited acquaintance with Schnitzler.

Best of all, it is a fine tantalizer in anticipation for the other plays in the Marvel Rep’s season: Sholem Asch’s God of Vengeance, on a double bill with O’Neill’s Exorcism, and Wedekind’s Spring Awakening. All have, in keeping with the Marvel’s Rep’s theme for the season, in their time been “burned, banned and caused riots.” Also promised for this summer is the world premiere of Night Games, a new play by Dianna Russell and Marvel Rep’s director Lenny Leibowitz based on Schnitzler’s novellas (the same material that inspired the Stanley Kubrick film Eyes Wide Shut.) Who could ask for anything more?
Professor Bernhardi By Arthur Schnitzler
Translated by GJ Weinberger
Directed by Lenny Leibowitz

Cast: Jill Usdan (Sister Ludmilla, a nurse; attendant and Servant), Nathan Brisby (Dr. Hochroitzpointner), Andrew Lemonier (Dr. Oskar Bernhardi), Franz Quitt (Dr. Kurt Pflugfelder), Sam Tsoutsouvas (Dr. Bernhardi), Chris Kipiniak (Dr. Ebanwald), Christopher Lee (Dr. Adler), Geddeth Smith (Dr. Cyprian), Markus Potter (Rev. Franz Reder), Yuval Boim (Dr. Schreimann and Dr. Goldenthal, defense attorney), Stass Klassen (Dr. Filitz), Marc Geller (Dr. Lowenstein), Jonathan Cantor (Professor Dr. Flint), Kevin Gilmartin (Dr. Pflugfelder), Max Alaexander Singer (Dr. Wenger), Joel Bernstein (Dr. Winkler).
Scenic Design: Tijana Bjelajac
Costume Design: Susan Nester
Lighting Design: Nicholas Houfek
Sound Desing: Howard Fredrics
Running Time: 3 hours including intermission
Marvell Rep, at the TBG Theatre, 312 West 36th Street, 3rd Floor
(212) 518-6085
Tickets $25.00
From: 01/31/12
Opening: 02/05/12
Ends: 02/28/12
Note: Dr. Bernhardi will be performed in rotating repertory with The Threepenny Opera (opening February 12 with previews from February 6) through February 28.
Review by Simon Saltzman based on performance 02/01/12
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