Even good reputations cut two ways. As a finalist for the 1996 Pulitzer Prize for drama, Jon Marans’ “Old Wicked Songs” arrives Off Broadway with expectations it might have trouble fulfilling. A play that makes the best of an easily recognizable formula — two characters with seemingly little in common are thrown together and, through a series of often prickly encounters, grow from the experience — “Old Wicked Songs” might have been better served by allowing audiences to discover its sentimental charms with as little attendant hype as possible.
But hype or no, Marans’ play seems a natural for the country’s regional theaters, with its two-member cast and single set a godsend for the financially strapped. The well-crafted structure of the play and the two choice roles virtually ensure a continued life.
An extended Off Broadway run could be less certain, depending entirely on the play’s ability to find an audience for what essentially is a rather old-fashioned two-hander.
Future incarnations notwithstanding, Marans would have difficulty finding a more sympathetic production or cast than those in this first commercial staging (most of the creative team are holdovers from the play’s debut by the nonprofit, Off Off Broadway Barrow Group last year).
From Markas Henry’s set (heavy wooden furniture crowds a finely detailed apartment that all but smells of Old World mustiness) to Howard Werner’s golden-hued lighting, the production is first-rate. Indeed, actors Hal Robinson and Justin Kirk are so effective they all but veil the problems of a sluggish, anti-climactic second act, and with few exceptions, director Seth Barrish lends an understatement that the play itself occasionally lacks.
Kirk, proving his breakthrough as the blind character in “Love! Valour! Compassion!” was no fluke, here plays Stephen Hoffman, a 25-year-old pianist who has traveled to a renowned Viennese music school in an effort to overcome the musical equivalent of writer’s block. A prodigy since the age of 4, Stephen, a “superb technician.” has lost the passion of a true artist, if indeed he ever had it.
The school remands him to Professor Josef Mashkan (Robinson), an eccentric — cantankerous but kindly — vocal coach who tells the skeptical young pianist, “An accompanist must know how a singer feels,” Humbled at having to submit to what essentially is remedial school, the rudely arrogant Stephen is slowly won over by the Austrian professor’s zest (“Give me too much passion or none at all!”).
But there’s a problem: Stephen is put off by old man’s anti-Semitism, casual at first (he dismisses the talent of Leonard Bernstein), but growing as the two let down their guards.
When Stephen plans a sightseeing trip to Dachau, the professor scolds that the camp site “is just a bunch of dead Jews.” Only then does Stephen reveal that he’s Jewish.
Audience will assume, as does Stephen, that the professor is a former Nazi, and much discussion of Kurt Waldheim’s past (the year is 1986) seems so much foreshadowing.
But Marans has a surprise in store, revealed off-handedly (and far too early) when the professor rolls up a sleeve to display a concentration camp tattoo.
Much of the second act then follows the two men as they reawaken to life, the professor by discussing his past, the student by embracing his Jewishness and finding his lost artistic passion.
Unfortunately, any suspense evaporates and the play bogs down once the professor’s Jewishness is revealed, and the long-awaited recounting of his death camp experiences is done in such a way that the audience doesn’t hear — we see only the tearful reaction of the student. However poignant Kirk’s performance is — and the production’s dramatic lighting also helps the scene — the device is the sharpest let-down in an act that has more than its share. Despite its sentimentality, “Old Wicked Songs” never reaches the expected emotional payoff.
Still, Marans, a lyricist for various composers, has a good feel for the uplifting power of music, and the scenes in which the teacher and student find connection through the romantic compositions of Schumann are among the play’s finest.
It is of no small value that Kirk and Robinson, even when not actually playing the piano, certainly seem to be, with Kirk especially winning in a scene that has him comically mimicking the styles of various pianists. The scene is more effective in conveying the character’s lack of musical originality than all the numerous pronouncements combined.
Had the playwright trusted his audience by allowing more to go unspoken — “Common ground must exist,” the professor says all too pointedly during one duet — he himself might have moved beyond the realm of the superb technician, and taken his good play with him.