Admirers of Wallace Shawn know enough to expect the unexpected from this puckish playwright (“Aunt Dan and Lemon,” “The Designated Mourner”), librettist (the upcoming “Threepenny Opera”), screenwriter (“Marie and Bruce”) and theatrical wit (“My Dinner With Andre”). Sure enough, this creative gadfly once again breaks ground with “The Music Teacher,” a surreal play wrapped around a classical opera that he wrote 23 years ago with his brother, composer Allen Shawn. But this time the usually outrageous scribe confounds all expectations by being uncharacteristically dull.
There’s no faulting the production, either. Tom Cairns, who helms for the New Group and comes by his stage savvy via Brit legit and opera, establishes a fluid, dreamlike environment that feels just right for this gauzy memory play. The set itself (also designed by Cairns) conveys that free-floating sensation, with sliding screens serving as the backdrop for film projections of winter snow scenes and silver birch trees providing shelter for the actors and an onstage musical ensemble.
The elegiac story that unfolds against this wintry landscape is narrated by Mr. Smith (Mark Blum), a middle-aged music professor looking back at his younger self. Shawn has written a painfully lovely opening monologue for this Prufrockian figure, and Blum delivers the insightful self-analysis in a rueful tone that is both funny and moving.
Seen in flashback as a young music instructor in “a small, rather fanciful, rather artistically inclined boarding school,” Smith is openly envious of his students, “for whom every moment of life seemed charged with sensuality and passion.” Unable to resign himself to being a grownup, he yearns to play with the kids.
Although Smith claims he is only a detached “collector of beauty,” you can feel his longing in the throbbing musical theme Allen Shawn has set to his brother’s lyric about the quickening life force that lies “curled up, sleeping, waiting” under the frozen ground. If there’s a pulse to the show, this is it.
Young Smith (played in flashback by Wayne Hobbs) gets his chance to participate when he seizes on the chance to collaborate on an original opera with Young Jane (Sarah Wolfson), his prettiest and most talented student. For a while, the show is sustained by the creative and sexual tensions of that unorthodox collaboration.
But when spring finally comes and their student opera is produced by the school, the delicate fabric of illusion is shot to hell. Despite all intimations of its brilliance, the opera is a sophomoric exercise, its classical musical language undermined by its feeble mythic structure and ersatz Greek themes. While a few directorial attempts are made to send up the show’s pretensions, it’s hard to mock something designed as a classic symbol of youth and beauty.
The narrative picks up again with an account of Smith’s self-destructive response to the success of his opera. (In a judicious rewrite, the anecdotal material might yet make it as a New Yorker short story.) But by that time the damage has been done, making it impossible to feel much sympathy for this silly man and his premature midlife crisis.