"Old Wicked Songs"
Westport Country Playhouse, Westport
When “Old Wicked Songs” first appeared eleven years ago, opening in Philadelphia and moving on to the Jewish Repertory Theatre in New York, it proved to be a sleeper. This drama of a music teacher and his pupil, set in Vienna of the ‘80s, packed an unexpectedly powerful wallop. In fact it would go on to win several theater awards and gain a Pulitzer Prize nomination for playwright Jon Marans.
But “Old Wicked Songs,” it seems, has staying power as well, as indicated by the current strong revival at the Westport Country Playhouse. This time around the tale goes beyond two men and a piano. Much more emphasis is placed on Schumann’s romantic song cycle, his “Dichterliebe,” which is played and sung throughout. The play’s title, in fact, is based on a Heine line, which provides the lyrics for Schumann’s music.
But the story remains intact. Stephen, a young American Jew and a concert pianist, has come to Vienna to study with one Professor Schiller, a noted piano teacher. Stephen’s playing, by his own acknowledgment, is technically brilliant, but lacks passion. He hopes to find that missing element in Vienna.
By Prof. Schiller’s orders, he is obliged first to study with a voice teacher named Professor Josef Mashkan, who will teach him to sing German lieder, thus preparing him as a piano accompanist. Neither is happy with the arrangement, not the brash arrogant young American nor the embittered shabby old teacher.
But gradually each begins to impact on the other, and along the way each comes to new self-awareness through acknowledgment of the past and understanding of the present. Both lives change. To detail those changes here would be to give away the show. Let us just say that they change.
“Old Wicked Songs” is a complex piece, with many themes—teacher/pupil relationships, for one, the power of redemption through music, for another, the discovery of self-identity, still another. While filled with tragic elements, considering Mashkan’s background, the story is shot through with gentle humor. Mashkan, for example, constantly offers Stephen pastries, but charges for the treats.
Both Joe Paulik as the young man and Michael Cristofer as the Professor are a joy to watch, though the show is not without its flaws. The German accent Cristofer effects often muddies the lines. And Director Loy Arcenas’ set is too large, too grand, for the shabby atelier it is meant to be.
But one can overlook these flaws in the larger scheme. “Old Wicked Songs” is a gentle tender piece which goes to the heart of things, and is not to be missed.
-- Irene Backalenick
Oct. 22, 2006