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This review by Simon Saltzman was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on

May 27, 1998. All rights reserved.

Review: `Old Wicked Songs’

Great reviews and positive word-of-mouth catapulted

Jon Marans’ play, "Old Wicked Songs," from its Off-Off

Broadway

engagement to an extended run at the Promenade Theater in 1996 where

it was subsequently nominated for a Pulitzer prize. In the event that

you missed seeing this play in New York, or saw and remember it as

fondly as I do, you should not miss this opportunity to see this

beautifully

acted and directed production, playing at George Street Playhouse

to June 7. This second visit allowed me to appreciate some of the

subtler and finer points in Marans’ play. The more obvious joy of

the play is how it weaves its redemptive sentimental dramatics around

lots of absolutely glorious music.

"Old Wicked Songs" is an impressive interplay of drama and

music. It uses its principal conflict between a young, arrogant Jewish

American concert pianist and an elderly, semi-retired eccentric

Austrian

music professor to address the play’s more arresting theme — the

gulf between resistant student and worldly master, and between the

polished composition and its brash interpreter. Perhaps propelled

by conventional sparring and obvious bonding, the play is also notably

exalted by German composer Robert Schumann’s "Dichterliebe"

song cycle that runs through. It provides a most remarkable and

provocative

catalyst.

"I’m going to report you for lack of manners," shouts

Professor

Josef Mashkan (Des Keogh) to the brash young man who barges in,

without

knocking, to the professor’s music studio in Vienna, Austria. The

professor wants to appear as formidable as possible to his 25-year-old

student, Stephen Hoffman (Aaron Serotsky), whose arrogance is as

immediately

evident as is his defensiveness. At first, however, it may be the

even more formidable setting designed by Doug Huszti that enthralls

us. The musty, slightly abstracted decor seems to exist in two worlds,

one real — the year is 1986 — the other vibrant and resonating

with echoes of an older, 19th-century world. While the grand piano

stands out in relief (and well tuned as we shall hear), everything

else that meets the eye in the spacious room, including the fearsome

golden eagle that looms over the balcony beyond the gracefully arched

windows, the grand decaying clock tower whose hands never move, the

imposing bust of Beethoven, an old gramophone, and the scattered

stacks

of music volumes — all appear as shadows of a glorious past. And

it is a feast for the eyes.

In the midst of an extended psychological performing

block, the former child prodigy, Stephen, in desperation, is

encouraged

to go to Vienna and seek retraining as an accompanist for classical

singers. To his dismay, Stephen has been assigned instead, and with

good reason, to study voice with a Professor Mashkan. Within this

music-charged ambiance, the professor attempts to show Stephen his

way back to solo performing through the conflicting emotions in

Schumann’s

songs. But a clash of temperaments, cultures, and repressed

ideologies,

clouds the testy relationship from the outset.

Characterized by a predictable air of American cockiness ("I don’t

need this class"), Stephen resists the mature insights of the

professor. And if the contradictory passions and metaphors in

Schumann’s

romantic song cycle, composed to the love poems of Heinrich Heine,

are to come full circle and transform Stephen, what about the

professor’s

anti-Semitic remarks that taint the air? Visibly bracing every time

Stephen mentions Jews, the instinctively philosophical and witty

Mashkan

attempts to cover his reactions with a quick quip — "When

a Jew makes a deal, he sticks to it. Remember `The Merchant of

Venice.’"

Stephen is openly rude, then condescending, to the professor. When

Stephen returns to Vienna, after a cathartic pilgrimage to Dachau,

he discovers the professor’s secret and the soul of Marans’ play is

exposed.

One has to admire Marans’ extraordinary use of music and the dramatic

frame that contains it. But perhaps we can have even more admiration

for actors Keogh and Serotsky, both of whom also demonstrate a talent

for the keyboard. Although he is a native of Ireland and has been

seen over the years in many productions at Dublin’s Abbey and Gate

theaters, Keogh makes a convincing Austrian. It is a pleasure to

observe

the playful twists and turns, both physical and psychological, that

he uses to control and confound his pupil. The idiosyncratic

performance

is filled with surprises both sad and joyful. It comes as no surprise

that Serotsky, while turning in a terrific performance, earned his

BFA at the College Conservatory of Music at the University of

Cincinnati.

Let me add that Serotsky sings beautifully as well.

The entire drama resonates with artistic integrity. Perhaps Stephen’s

change from a totally obnoxious and opinionated prodigy to an

open-hearted

mensch, and Mashkan’s passage from his dark past to a brighter life

in teaching is predicable. But the way to these ends have been

fashioned

with the prerequisite amounts of joy and sadness. Director Terence

Lamude has shaped the action with metronomic precision.

— Simon Saltzman

Old Wicked Songs, George Street Playhouse, 9

Livingston

Avenue, New Brunswick, 732-246-7717. $24 to $32. To June 7.


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