September 23, 2004
Partying With the Many Faces of ‘Alma’
Alma Mahler-Gropius-Werfel, who married and bedded a string of the 20th century's most creative geniuses, is celebrating her 125th birthday -- and what a party it's going to be.
For the occasion, guests, after running a paparazzi gantlet and imbibing a welcoming drink, will meet not one but three Almas in various incarnations, enjoy a three-course Viennese dinner, participate in a funeral procession for a famous composer and take a bus tour of downtown Los Angeles.
All right, ma'am, the facts: Previews for "Alma" started Sept. 23, with an opening night of Sept. 30 at the resurrected Los Angeles Theatre, the ultimate movie palace of the 1930s. Closing night is Dec. 5.
Israeli playwright Joshua Sobol, remembered for his rather more somber "Ghetto" and "The Soul of a Jew" at the Taper Forum in the late 1980s, describes "Alma" as a polydrama -- which means that the audience, limited to 200 per performance, doesn't just sit there, but moves with the play and its individual characters through some 15 locations on different levels inside and outside the theater.
At any given point, there are five different scenes under way simultaneously, and depending which scenes and characters the spectator chooses to follow, each experiences a different play.
"What we have is the theatrical equivalent of surfing the Internet," said Sobol during an interview at the L.A. Athletic Club. "You dive in and out, change Web sites or follow an interesting link. We're exploring a new relationship between the audience and the actors."
During a really, really full life of 85 years, Alma, born in Vienna in 1879 and died in New York in 1964, bewitched and dazzled a who's who of great artists with her looks, charm and intelligence.
At 22, she married composer-conductor Gustav Mahler, 20 years her senior. In one scene of the play, taken from life, Mahler consults Sigmund Freud about his impotence problems.
After a nine-year marriage, Mahler died and Alma wed Bauhaus architect Walter Gropius; although passionate, the marriage didn't last.
When she was almost 50, she was wooed and wed by novelist Franz Werfel, 11 years her junior. During and between various marriages, Alma engaged in intense affairs with painters Gustav Klimt and Oskar Kokoschka, and a list of other great artists.
Even when she was in her 60s, and rather stout, such screen idols as Charlie Chaplin and Errol Flynn paid her court, while she and Werfel lived on Bedford Drive in Beverly Hills. Her last recorded lover was a priest.
As satirist Tom Lehrer put it in his song (which will be heard in the play), "The loveliest girl in Vienna/ Was Alma -- the smartest as well/ Once you picked her up on your antenna/ You'd never be free of her spell."
And then, "Alma -- tell us, all modern women are jealous/ Though you didn't even use Ponds/ You got Gustav and Walter and Franz."
Among the curious psychological aspects of Alma, who married the Jewish Mahler and Werfel, was her anti-Semitism, which she easily absorbed in the prevailing Viennese milieu. Her stepfather later became a prominent Nazi.
"Alma didn't particularly like Jews, but she couldn't imagine living without them," observed Paulus Manker, the play's director.
Added Sobol, "She was attracted by Jewish intellectualism, and though she boasted of receiving the 'pure Aryan seed' of a Gropius, after a while she seemed to find her gentile lovers boring."
Sobol visualizes Alma as a transitional figure between the dutiful Germanic housewife of the late 19th century and the liberated woman of a century later.
When she married Mahler, for instance, she accepted his condition that she drop her own musical ambitions and devote herself solely to his welfare.
"But after that, she picked her own geniuses and tried to dominate them," Sobol said.
"Alma," the polydrama, premiered in the title character's birthplace in Vienna, then opened in her waystations of Venice and Lisbon. The performances in Los Angeles, where she spent 12 years, will be followed next year by New York, her final retirement place, ending the international tour. The play visits all these cities, as well as Tel Aviv, where Alma and Werfel spent their 1926 honeymoon.
In its premiere production in Vienna, "Alma" was scheduled for 15 experimental performances, but, after word of mouth got around, it ran for seven years, Sobol said.
The Los Angeles Theatre, at downtown Sixth Street and Broadway, was built in the French baroque style recalling the royal court of Louis XIV, France's "Sun King." It opened in 1931 with the gala premiere of Chaplin's "City Lights," in the presence of the star and a visiting Albert Einstein.
Director Manker gave a visitor a tour of the refurbished theater, now transformed to include elegant salons, a bathing cellar, Italian cafe, kitchen, ballroom and Alma's active boudoir. And don't miss the marble-inlaid rest room, where in one scene Alma's three husbands get together to compare notes on their beloved. Karen Kondazian, last seen here as Maria Callas in Terrance McNally's "Master Class," will play the key role of the elderly Alma.
"Alma," will run Thursday through Sunday evenings at 615 S. Broadway, Los Angeles. On opening night, Sept. 30, tickets are $125, which includes welcoming drinks, the gourmet repast and free valet parking. For tickets, call (213) 688-2994. For more information, visit www.alma-mahler.com .