There is a good play buried in the three-hour production of “Professor Bernhardi” from the Marvell Rep, but you have to wade through a lot of Germanic bluster and posturing to get to it. Written by Austrian Jewish physician-turned-playwright Arthur Schnitzler in 1912, the play traces the fallout from a bitter confrontation between a respected Jewish doctor and a Catholic priest in 1900 Vienna.
Controversial from its beginnings, “Professor Bernhardi” was banned by Austrian censors before its first production. The Nazis later blacklisted all of Schnitzler’s works, most of which deal frankly with sexuality, describing them as “Jewish filth.” The first full English-language production was in 1936, five years after Schnitzler’s death, in London. The play has been rarely performed in the United States, but this translation by G.J. Weinberger is running in repertory with another controversial play, “The Threepenny Opera,” in a season devoted to “burned & banned” plays.
What could be more contemporary than the conflict between science and religion? It is on front pages every day, it seems.
“Professor Bernhardi” opens in an anteroom at a high-class clinic in Vienna. A young woman is dying of infection after a botched abortion. Her physician has given her an injection of camphor to ease the pain, and she has entered into a blissful delusional state – she believes she is well and will be going home soon. When a priest arrives to offer her last rites, the ritual that will allow her to enter Heaven, the clinic director, Professor Bernhardi, refuses to let him enter. His rationale is that once the woman sees the priest, she will know she is dying. Bernhardi wants to give her a happy death, one free of anxiety. Ergo, no last rites.
In no surprise to anyone but Bernhardi, the priest is outraged, and so is a large segment of Catholic Austrian society. Bernhardi, however, is blithely unconcerned. He believes totally in his correctness. It is a battle between “houses of God versus houses of healing,” as far as he is concerned, and he cannot imagine that anyone could see it any other way. Sam Tsoutsouvas plays Bernhardi with just the right note of inflexibility; he is as certain of the truth as any zealot. Utterly rational, he explains to everyone that all will be well, and there is nothing to worry about.
Everyone around him – and it seems to be a cast of hundreds – is very worried. “We live in a Christian state,” one of his colleagues reminds him, and if the board of directors does not support him, the clinic may fail. Bernhardi holds an ace, and that is his relationship to his patient, a prince of the province. As long as the prince supports him, he is okay. But how long will that be? Then there is the possibility of appointing a non-Jewish doctor to the staff instead of a more intellectual Jewish doctor. Will Bernhardi do it?
The wheeling and dealing reveals the precarious situation of Austrian Jews; they are tolerated but despised, no matter how many convert to Christianity or join German dueling clubs.
And this is part of the problem. While the portrayal of anti-Semitism may have been shocking to Schnitzler’s Austrian audiences, it is routine today and not nearly as pertinent as the struggle between faith and science. A lot of the arguing about the position of the Jews could have been cut without losing much, and it might have left the central issue in clearer focus. The play is extraordinarily talky, and lot of the talk does not take it anywhere. A leaner script would have been able to move more adroitly.
Still, even with all the long-winded Germanic exposition, the play holds one’s attention. There are enough turns in the plot so that the audience cannot foresee the end, and director Lenny Leibowitz keeps things moving as best he can. The acting overall is satisfactory, with a few standouts, and that helps. Perhaps the next production of “Professor Bernhardi” will be shorter and more compelling.
“Professor Bernardi” can be seen at TBG Theatre on West 36th Street through Feb. 29.
For more information about the 2012 season, visit www.marvellrep.com