In the remarkable opening minutes of David Grimm's Tales From Red Vienna, running through April 27 at Off Broadway's Manhattan Theatre Club, we learn volumes about our heroine, Heléna Altman, without a word being spoken. Dressed in a black mourning dress and veil, Heléna (the luminous Nina Arianda) enters a shabby apartment in 1920 Vienna. She is soon followed by a well-dressed gentleman (Michael Esper) who puts several bills on the table, then several more, embraces her from behind, unbuttons her dress, lifts her onto the table, unbuttons himself, and hurriedly finishes their assignation. The only sound comes from an ominously ticking clock - and a too-jaunty whistle as he buttons up and leaves.
But from that dimly lit opening scene, finely staged by Kate Whoriskey on John Lee Beatty's typically detailed set, we see the material and spiritual deprivation of our heroine. Heléna has come down in the world since Austria lost World War I - she's suffered not just the loss of her husband but her well-furnished home and the sympathy of her catty and, until recently, titled childhood friend, Mutzi von Fessendorf (the sublime Tina Benko). Then Mutzi proposes to introduce her Hungarian paramour, Béla Hoyos, hoping to give herself cover for her own adultery. But it turns out that Béla is no stranger to Heléna — he's the gentleman visitor from the opening scene and they soon forge a genuine connection despite their sordid first encounter.
Even as the plot edges toward melodrama, Grimm maintains a firm handle on his characters, from the lovesick teenage son of the local Jewish grocer (Michael Goldsmith) to Heléna's all-too-knowing servant from childhood (the wonderful Kathleen Chalfant). Grimm writes with old-fashioned craftsmanship, including his three-act structure, that's undermined by some anachronistically contemporary dialogue. (As Chalfant's Edda says at one point, ''I'm not saying that's a bad thing. But it's a thing.'') It's as if Grimm was providing a self-consciously modern translation of a dusty, old period play, a feeling that's reinforced by Whoriskey's decision to have the cast speak in their natural American accents though their situations are particular to European life a century ago.
The biggest shortcoming of the promising but flawed Tales From Red Vienna is the head-scratcher of an ending. Heléna makes a series of rash decisions that don't make much sense, wresting tragedy and self-abnegation from a world that promised more than one avenue of escape - and perhaps even happiness. Her choice feels less earned than rushed, less a denouement than a mere device. B(Tickets: nycitycenter.org)