La Ronde
Written by Arthur Schnitzler, adapted by Frank and Jacqueline Marcus
Presented by the University of Vermont Department of Theatre
Directed by Gregory Ramos
Royall Tyler Theatre, Burlington, Vt.

In the Rilo Kiley indie rock gem “Portions for Foxes,” frontwoman Jenny Lewis cautions a would-be lover about rushing into a dalliance too quickly.

“The talking leads to touching, the touching leads to sex,” Lewis sings, “and then there is no mystery left.”

Lewis makes her sonic case in just under four minutes. With its season-capping production of Arthur Schnitzler’s “La Ronde,” the University of Vermont’s Department of Theatre asks its audience to set aside about two and a half hours so as to argue the same point — but offers little, if anything, to expound on insight that fits within a song.

“La Ronde” is a play known to many more for the response it met — Berlin riots and the obscenity trial it spawned when it made its 1921 debut more than 20 years after Schnitzler penned the work — than the work itself. The writer skewered the Vienna that boomed at the turn of the twentieth century; he reduced the city onstage to beds and blankets. Its society is likewise painted in a cyclical series as an interchangeable cast of sex-crazed immorals moving from one class-crossing liaison to the next; the closest thing the group has to a moral center is the prostitute that opens and closes the work.

At least she (Jana Pollack in this production) has a reason to use her sexuality — the desire to earn a wage.

New UVM Theatre director Gregory Ramos and his 10-member cast seem to remain true to the spirit of Schnitzler’s work, evoking a sense of almost laughable boredom and frivolity in the brightly-plumed characters they bring to the Royall Tyler stage. Had “La Ronde’s” first audiences taken in this production, one could assume that they would have been outraged by the manner in which UVM Theatre has depicted them, scandalized at watching their dramatic counterparts writhe against each other in various stages of undress during intercourse interludes on the darkened stage.

But this isn’t Vienna and more than 80 years have passed since audiences first gasped at what Ramos describes in his program notes as “the revelation that the characters are searching for a human connection against rigid cultural and social constructs.” The search the director describes has been reduced in this production to a series of empty pursuits conducted by empty characters in an ultimately empty play — a work in which the only stir prompted is from the still-scarcely seen use of onstage nudity.

Those of us who admit to reading pop culture blogs and magazines must humbly admit that we have regularly seen people in our own time — the Paris Hiltons of the world, those we try to keep out of sacred theater space — show us how people can fail at creating emotional, human connections through sex. UVM Theatre fails in this work to present an argument for why Schnitzler’s period piece provides today’s audience any better form of cautionary tale.

This mundane passing of the — ahem — buck from character to character blends the 10 UVM actors into two masses, man (with a harsh German accent) and woman (with a slightly more believable British dialect). Only Jess Hodge (Actress) and Calvin Utter (Young Gentleman) — the two actors who bravely embrace their characters’ nudity demands — manage to break through the blandness to register a lasting impression.

“La Ronde” won’t cause a scandal among UVM Theatre’s patrons. There will be no pitchfork waving, no obscenity claims. The piece prompts nary a discussion, even a murmur — little more than a tepid yawn.–VV