All the Jewish jokes in the world won’t be enough to save “Mahler’s Conversion,” the startlingly inept Ronald Harwood play that has unwisely taken up residence in a theater about 10 times too big for so trivial a piece of writing. Jewish jokes, you ask? Yes, they feature in the play, most crucially during a sustained second-act scene between Gustav Mahler (Antony Sher) and Sigmund Freud (Gary Waldhorn) that generates virtually the only tension during a seemingly interminable evening. And hoary though the wisecracks may be (one of them is engineered, in fact, not to get a laugh), they’re infinitely preferable to the mixture of hagiography, kitsch and psychobabble — “I don’t know which is the real me,” mewls Alma Mahler (Fiona Glascott), “if there is a real me” — that pass for dialogue elsewhere. “These are the most glorious reviews I’ve ever read,” we hear of some Mahlerian triumph or other at the start of act two, and you can rest assured that the characters aren’t discussing the likely response to “Mahler’s Conversion.”
Harwood has made an often enjoyable habit out of dramatizing artists, whether in his touchstone play “The Dresser” or far more crudely in his last West End outing, “Quartet,” in which four over-the-hill opera divas mime their way through “Rigoletto” as the curtain falls. In “Mahler’s Conversion,” the curtain doesn’t so much descend as get yanked irritatingly from side to side, designer Stephen Brimson Lewis’ German Romantic frontcloth flying this way and that to reveal a shapeless succession of scenes that add up to a reductive gloss on “Amadeus.” (“How can a great composer be such an indifferent human being?” asks one of the women who flounce in and out of a ceaselessly libidinous Mahler’s bedchamber: Mozart, eat your heart out.)
Harwood picks up his play in 1897 Hamburg as the Bohemian Jew Mahler is wrestling with converting to Catholicism so as to ease his way into a new job as director of the Vienna Court Opera. The Austrian capital excites him — there, remarks the composer in a spree of felicitous language from Harwood, “even the trams are melodious” — but the prospect of anti-Semitism doesn’t. And so the stage is set for a drama about sacrifice and denial whereby success is achieved at enormous psychic cost.
At any rate, that’s the play you keep thinking “Mahler’s Conversion” might have been if it weren’t content with such connect-the-dot clarifications as “my good friend Johannes Brahms, another composer.” Between this and the recent Bruce Beresford film “Bride of the Wind,” which featured a stern-faced Jonathan Pryce as Mahler, “a musical giant” (in Harwood’s helpful phrase) is having a tough year.
Sher often has gone on record explaining his own struggle with denial as a gay South African Jew who found himself climbing a none-too-friendly (at the start, anyway) career ladder in England. So one had every reason to assume a real connection between the performer and this part on the order of the same actor’s superlative work in “Stanley,” playing English artist Stanley Spencer, an emotionally aberrant outcast of a very different sort. Instead, one of London’s most prodigiously gifted theater talents is left sounding at times like Jackie Mason and projecting glum determination, his little Lear-like dance amid a storm in act one yielding later to a dry ice-fueled closing tableau that put a companion of mine in mind of nothing so much as “Les Miz.”
Inevitably, the star gets the bulk of the evening’s cheesier moments, among them a hilariously phony second-act curtain-raiser that finds Mahler in furious conducting flow receiving a theater full of bravi. Any prevailing sense of spiritual depletion surfaces only during the encounter with Freud, though even there one thinks of how much better Tom Stoppard yoked together two major figures — in that case Housman and Wilde — in “The Invention of Love.”
Doubling as Freud and as a man of the cloth with nice things to say about the Resurrection Symphony, Waldhorn retains his dignity and then some. That’s more than can be said for the rest of director Gregory Doran’s surprisingly ill-chosen cast, with Anna Francolini retreating once more into shrill hysterics after her transformative work late last year in “Merrily We Roll Along.” Playing the bitchiest of Mahler’s bare-bosomed discards, Francolini is heard carping about “Americans (who) only attend the opera so they can have a party afterwards.” I can think of worse reasons for attending “Mahler’s Conversion” and only hope that everyone involved had a great opening-night bash.