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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
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
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
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
"I’m going to report you for lack of manners," shouts
Josef Mashkan (Des Keogh) to the brash young man who barges in,
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
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
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
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
songs. But a clash of temperaments, cultures, and repressed
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
romantic song cycle, composed to the love poems of Heinrich Heine,
are to come full circle and transform Stephen, what about the
anti-Semitic remarks that taint the air? Visibly bracing every time
Stephen mentions Jews, the instinctively philosophical and witty
attempts to cover his reactions with a quick quip — "When
a Jew makes a deal, he sticks to it. Remember `The Merchant of
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
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
the playful twists and turns, both physical and psychological, that
he uses to control and confound his pupil. The idiosyncratic
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
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
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
with the prerequisite amounts of joy and sadness. Director Terence
Lamude has shaped the action with metronomic precision.
— Simon Saltzman
Avenue, New Brunswick, 732-246-7717. $24 to $32. To June 7.
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