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As the world (and stage) turns

Yasmina Reza's "Bella Figura" at Schaubühne is a night of errors when an bickering couple run over an elderly woman. With Thomas Ostermeier and Nina Hoss attached, the buzz is there. But what did our reviewer think? Catch it from June 4.

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Photo by Arno Declair

It’s a garden-variety couple’s spat: She thinks he’s patronising her. He thinks she’s imagining things. It continues, without going much of anywhere, until someone else interrupts the petulant chatter. “Excuse me,” says the interloper. “But this whole thing is extremely embarrassing.”

Well-put. “This whole thing” is Bella Figura, a new play by Yasmina Reza. The French playwright, known for the bougie brawls of God of Carnage and Art, wrote Bella Figura specifically for Schaubühne director Thomas Ostermeier and for this cast, which includes Nina Hoss and Mark Waschke (they’re the bickering couple). But the result, which premiered in May, is a bloodless shadow of a play: superficial, bland and devoid of bite.

The play opens with Boris (Waschke) and his lover Andrea (Hoss) in the parking lot of a fancy seafood spot. The two snip at each other for a while before getting into the car and promptly backing into an elderly woman. The woman, Yvonne (Lore Stefanek), doesn’t seem to be hurt. But she does love oysters, and she’s here to celebrate her birthday with her son, Eric, and her daughter-in-law, Françoise. And – uh oh – Françoise is a lifelong friend of Boris’ wife. So, of course, they all sit down for drinks. And, of course, it’s unpleasant.

In their chic, champagne-hued outfits – and their flutes of Champagne to match – these characters exude upper-middle-class comfort. Andrea is the only character Reza gives much depth, and she’s the relative outsider: the mistress, the single mother, holding down a job in an out-of-the-way pharmacy. Hoss is a master of understated physical comedy, whether swatting at (imaginary) mosquitoes or gawking at (real) lobsters in an onstage tank. Throughout, her loneliness and sense of longing are palpable, in the way her body crumples in half when she’s sitting on the toilet, and in the way her tone of voice shifts depending on how much attention she’s being paid.

Ostermeier orchestrates a bit of boulevard-style slapstick but mostly plays it slick, straight and all too safe. The elegant staging might fit the characters’ self-image, but it hardly reflects their reality. And though a revolving stage lets us observe the actors from all angles, 360-degree views are no substitute for character development. All the while, crickets chirp, frogs croak and video of creepy-crawlies plays on a large screen. And, like those insects, these characters buzz around, occasionally stinging each other, but mostly acting as a mere annoyance.

Bella Figura, Jun 4, 5, 11, 13, 20:00; Jun 6, 16:00; Jun 7, 9, 10, 15, 18:00 | Schaubühne, Kürfurstendamm 153, Charlottenburg, U-Bhf Adenauerplatz