You just know that Old Wicked Songs can’t be the easiest show to cast. I can see the job listing now:
Wanted: two actors, one 60s, one 25. Both must be classically trained pianists, able to convince audiences that they belong on a concert stage. Older has Viennese accent and performs Schumann’s Dichterliebe during play. Younger must be able to distinguish between–and convincingly mimic in performance–Glenn Gould, Vladimir Horowitz, Fritz Kreisler, Vladimir Ashkenazy, others. Singing required. Apply Triad Stage.
Even so, this circumstance doesn’t explain why this production at the region’s newest professional theater doesn’t begin to match the quality of the one we saw at Sanford’s relatively humble Temple Theatre in 1999. Those contemplating travel to Greensboro in hopes of reliving the passion and intrigue of that memorable two-man scherzo of suspicion are hereby duly warned: These Songs may be just as old, but they never truly get that wicked.
It’s a pity, since regional audiences have clearly seen that, in the right hands, Jon Maran’s drama can be both a meditation on aesthetics, art and loss–and one suspenseful, nervy game of cat-and-mouse.
In Old Wicked Songs, Stephen, a Jewish American concert pianist burned out at 25, comes to Vienna in search of the spark he once had. But before he can study with a world-renowned teacher, Stephen must spend a humbling semester learning to be an accompanist. His taskmaster is an enigmatic vocal coach, Professor Mashkin: a pianist in his 60s with a firm grasp of the Romantics and an insight into true musicianship that young Stephen lacks–a bit curt and curmudgeonly perhaps, but not a bad lot over all.
Until, that is, we realize that Mashkin’s old-school Viennese charm can be replaced, in an instant, with something considerably darker: a short, explosive temper, with a tendency toward decidedly anti-Jewish invective, which he mouths without apology or discomfort.
Plus, Stephen arrives in Austria at no ordinary time in his search for his muse. It’s 1986 and Kurt Waldheim is about to be elected president, despite the inconvenience of a Nazi past.
It’s a point the play trades on–particularly since, as the evidence slowly, insidiously mounts, Stephen begins to wonder if the same is true of Mashkin.
Granted, Temple’s production brought in something of a ringer–Jac Alder, whose performance as Mashkin won him an annual “Best Actor” award from The Dallas Observer before it took similar honors in the Triangle in 1999. Still, that interpretation provides something of a diagnosis of current difficulties in Greensboro.
Begin with director Tom Humphrey and Gordon Stanley’s far too sunny, effervescent version of the vocal coach. Where in Sanford we encountered a shadowed taskmaster, caught in the grip of his own stoicism, haunted by a retinue of well-closeted skeletons, this production gives us “Mashkin Lite” instead. Equally light of heart and weight, it’s a far too affable take: an old-school Viennese graduate music instructor (and possibly an actor) who, deep down, just really wants to be liked.
Even if one can summon up enough disbelief to actually imagine Stanley’s Mashkin in a Nazi uniform–an absolute necessity for this play–the picture’s never really all that interesting. When we don’t believe this character actually suffered through World War II at all, it tends not to matter as much which side he was on.
Nor does it help matters when the stakes in Stephen’s course of study are minimized. Where Sanford’s lessons were a gauntlet that Stephen could possibly fail (dooming his career comeback prospects without recourse), these lessons never seem more than a temporary inconvenience with a predetermined outcome. Such tactics further minimize the potential for drama.
While his muggy impersonations of other piano greats amuse, Timothy McCracken’s similarly de-dimensionalized take on Stephen substitutes the easy velocity of anger for the desperation of a man with no idea of how to repair his broken creative faculties. When Stanley’s possibly former Nazi Mashkin actually provides little of a target to go after, their final confrontations are criminally underfunded.
Finally, when the stage directions for a second-act suicide intervention actually veer into physical comedy, we lose even more respect for Humphrey’s comparatively glib, surface-oriented account.
Maran’s play was a finalist for the 1996 Pulitzer because its center involves not only experiencing and surviving great loss, but learning to live with its aftermath, at least in part, by artistically expressing it.
Such a lesson, though, can only believably be taught by characters who we think have demonstrably experienced such loss themselves and have been changed by the experience. Those character notes we have a particularly hard time ever hearing in this unsatisfying iteration of Old Wicked Songs.