The title of Thomas Bernhard’s play “Ritter, Dene, Voss” comes from the surnames of the three actors who premiered the roles in 1986: Ilse Ritter, Kirsten Dene and Gert Voss. It is worth noting as well that Ritter means “knight” and Voss is an aristocratic surname from the fourteenth cenutry. This is significant because “Ritter, Dene, Voss” is a play about the death of the Viennese ideal of urbane aristocracy and the horrible, beautiful flowers that bloomed in the rotting dung heap of post-World War I Austria.

The story is set in a stately old mansion where two sisters await the arrival of their brother Ludwig, who is returning from a mental hospital for the first time in a long while. They are rich, dilettantish actresses, who have never had to feel the sharp pinch of necessity. Consequently they are utterly neurotic and typically Viennese. (Could Freud have ever discovered psychoanalysis if he had grown up in any other city?) Their brother is a haute bourgeois Prometheus: a tortured genius, he is beautiful, frail, effeminate, and the author of the most important work on logic ever written. The entirety of nearly two hours is composed of rants and recriminations between the three of them, denunciations and defenses of the hypocritical social order, and a painful because impossible search for “truth.” Imagine Civilization and Its Discontents meets No Exit.

Adam Seelig, the director, paces the show at just the right tempo to convey both neurotic energy and soul crushing lethargy. His cast, three accomplished Canadian actors, Shannon Perreault, Maev Beaty, and Jordan Pettie, show that the difficult text — written originally in German with no punctuation — has not mastered them. Jackie Chau’s set design at La MaMa is elegant and minimal. All the pieces fit nicely together and accentuate the fundamental nihilism that animates the characters.

As I watched the performance my mind returned several times to a book review I read some months ago about Ludwig Wittgenstein. The character Ludwig shares many biographical similarities to the great philosopher. And so I was not surprised to see that the playwright is quoted in the program for this production saying that when he wrote the play his thoughts revolved around his friend Paul Wittgenstein’s uncle — Ludwig. Wittgenstein’s family’s story is an Austrian Jewish analog to the southern families in Faulkner’s novels. Self-made millionaires, the Wittgensteins appeared to be the face of successful, integrated Jewery in late 19th century Austria. They were the haute bourgeoisie’s poster family, an advertisement for meritocracy as aristocracy, so successful, in fact, that they converted to Catholicism and effaced their family’s ethnic history. They and their fictive counterparts in this play mythologically demonstrate the cognitive dissonance inflicted on humans who assert their innate superiority to others while secretly fearing that their success is merely the product of chance — or capitalism. The fact that Ludwig the philosopher is only capable of listening to Ludwig van Beethoven the composer — himself a self-made, “new” man and Viennese resident — is indicative of the centrifugal revolutionary forces that fuel the characters’ existential angst.

This production of “Ritter, Dene, Voss” is well done and well worth seeing. It’s the kind of theater that you will only see on the stage, and only for the briefest moment.

Ritter, Dene, Voss

at La MaMA

Through October 10, 2010

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