LA RONDE by Arthur Schnitzler, adapted by Jason Sherman (Soulpepper). At the Young Centre (50 Tank House). Runs in rep with True West until May 4. $5-$68. 416-866-8666. See listings. Rating: NNNN
Jason Sherman hasn't penned anything for the stage in years, but his trademark wit and depth are back in a remarkable adaptation of Arthur Schnitzler's controversial classic about a series of interconnected sexual encounters.
Set in contemporary Toronto, Sherman's version takes Schnitzler's daisy-chain structure - person A has sex with person B, then B has sex with C, etc - and tweaks it. This is eroticism in the electronic and global age, where sexting and porn can replace the actual deed, and sex is more about power and exploitation than tenderness or love.
Some of these themes are timeless, of course, but it's hard to imagine that a Congolese rape victim or an abused Chinese adoptee was what Schnitzler had in mind back in 1897.
With a few exceptions, the thing works, held together by Sherman's sharp writing, a terrifically talented ensemble and the firm direction of Alan Dilworth, making an impressive Soulpepper debut.
It's tough to create rich characters in an anthology play, but Sherman's details tell us a lot, whether that person is a controlling scientist (Maev Beaty) coolly negotiating an artificial insemination experiment with a student (Adrian Morningstar) or a sexual surrogate (Brenda Robins) patiently guiding a man (Brandon McGibbon) on the proper way to give cunnilingus.
What's terrific about Sherman's script is how scenes can quickly change direction. A later scene between that scientist and her husband (Mike Ross) goes from playful banter to rage in a minute, whereas in that same cunnilingus episode, Robins's character delivers a poignant speech about why she gave up acting that will send a chill up the spine of any theatre lover.
Not everything works, mind you. The writing for a corporate tycoon (Paul Sun-Hyung Lee) who can buy and sell lives lacks the subtlety and shading of the other roles. But the payoff in his scene with Robins's sex surrogate, when she compromises her principles for material gain, is utterly shocking.
Lorenzo Savoini's set, a sort of forced-perspective white box, morphs quickly and believably into a number of locales, and there are surprises in store near the end as the gaps in communication widen.
Dilworth handles the transitions - when characters from other scenes move furniture, appearing like ghosts - especially skilfully. And although we know how the play concludes (i.e., at its beginning), there's a feeling of hope and redemption in the final scene, in which two lost souls looking for comfort find each other.