Thin-skinned and yet haughty, Clara doesn’t make a very reliable narrator, but she gets the gist right. Walking home late from a holiday party, Édouard is cruised by a handsome man who introduces himself as Reda. At first reluctant, Édouard eventually succumbs to Reda’s seductive wheedling, and they spend a hot night of intercourse and discourse. The discourse is mostly, again, about class: Reda is Kabyle, and his father immigrated to France from Algeria only to find a life of crushing work and poverty.
This would seem to make the two men sociological soul mates, yet in the morning all goes haywire when Reda pockets Édouard’s iPad and iPhone. Furious at the implicit accusation that he is a thief, which he is, Reda throttles Édouard with a scarf and threatens him with a gun, then rapes him before apologizing and leaving.
In his stunning production for Berlin’s Schaubühne, which runs at St. Ann’s Warehouse through Dec. 1, the director Thomas Ostermeier makes us wait a long time before showing us this scene directly. As is now almost an avant-garde cliché, Ostermeier works to divide our loyalty to narrative by shuffling events, doubling and casting doubt on them with live video and interrupting the action with moments of abstract physical expression that border on dance. A drum set is also involved.
All this feels at first like throat-clearing: self-important and peremptory. The video imagery seems especially inessential, distracting us from Édouard (Laurenz Laufenberg) by focusing on other cast members changing costumes or detectives dusting the crime scene for DNA.
And yet, as in Ostermeier’s production of “Returning to Reims,” which played at St. Ann’s last year, the conceptual curlicues eventually pay off when the actors are allowed to play real scenes together. (All four are excellent, but Alina Stiegler as Clara and Renato Schuch as Reda stand out.) The long confrontation between the men in the morning is made not just horrifying but also heartbreaking by the distancing setup that has kept us from feeling much until the moment when it is almost too late.
By then we have heard — or read; the production is in German, with English supertitles — the political interpretation that Louis and Ostermeier construct for the events. It is only logical, Édouard tells Clara, that Reda would steal from him and erupt in violence, given the racism and homophobia of the system he lives under. Elites have earned this comeuppance.