There’s no shortage of good plays that examine the lives of musicians and composers — passion, precision, and skill often provide juicy dramatic landscapes. From Peter Shaffer’s “Amadeus” to Two River Theater Company’s excellent recent production of Michael Hollinger’s “Opus,” a play about a renowned string quartet, it’s easy to see why audiences gravitate to the stories of musical aptitudes and the tensions therein: it provides a great framework through which we can take a look at how we communicate, learn, appreciate art, and deal with life.
With that in mind, Bristol Riverside Theater’s spectacular production of “Old Wicked Songs” is about playing the piano in the same way that “Proof” is about math or “Titanic” is about a boat — there are bigger questions and deeper mysteries at play here, and this solid presentation is well worth seeing.
“Old Wicked Songs” tracks the relationship between music professor Josef Mashkan (BRT artistic director Keith Baker) and his new pupil, Stephen Hoffman (David Kenner), a 25-year-old former piano prodigy. Set in mid-1980s Vienna, the play quickly sets up all the trappings for a cliched coming-of-age story about a master and student. At an early glance, it almost feels like an incarnation of “The Karate Kid,” with a piano standing in for martial arts. This nearly universal sendup is quickly set on its ear, however, by the richness of the characters and the stories they choose to share with one another — and better yet, by the information they choose to withhold.
Stephen is every bit the “ugly American,” full of brattiness and a sense of importance and entitlement. He has travelled to Vienna to study with a renowned pianist in hopes of becoming an accomplished accompanist. He chafes at his studies with Mashkan, primarily a voice teacher, with whom he must study for three months before reaching his desired instructor. The juxtaposition sets up the developing connection between these two men, as each is taken out of his element. Stephen, a technically perfect pianist, has to open up to a world of passion and interpretation that seems both foreign and unnecessary to him via studying singing, while Mashkan, considered unemployable for reasons initially unknown, serves as accompanist and teacher to this tense and unreachable young man.
It’s a little like the first half of a buddy cop movie, in that both of these men would rather be without the other, but are thrown together by necessity. A quick detour into back story: the Viennese political climate is in a sense of upheaval, in light of Kurt Waldheim’s imminent election to Austrian president in the spring of 1986. Waldheim’s status as an alleged war criminal and placement on the U.S. Nazi watchlist, the specter of the holocaust, and the complex nature of national guilt hangs over Stephen and Mashkan’s conversations, with Stephen interpreting Mashkan’s standoffishness and offhanded comments about Jewish faith, practice, and musicality as clear and present anti-Semitism. Their burgeoning friendship is soured when Stephen accuses Mashkan, with ample evidence at hand, of being a Nazi sympathizer and, in an example of gasp-worthy direction and gorgeous pacing, the accusation is refuted in the evening’s best moment. It’s a surprise worth leaving unspoiled here, and it adds a layer of forward momentum to the nature of this complex student-teacher relationship.
The show’s design is stunning and subtle. Bill Clarke’s shabby-chic design of the music studio shifts elegantly and delicately under Charles Reece’s lighting to reflect the mood and power struggle between both characters. And then there’s the piano work of both performers. It’s so good that I had trouble discerning when they were actually playing and when we’d shifted to recorded music. Mike Troncone’s sound design is a marvel.
At the heart of this story is the nature of art and the choice between developing the mechanics of skill or the broadness of emotion. But it goes one step beyond that: music, like history, is always subject to interpretation. And that’s Stephen’s lesson to learn: a lot gets lost when you look at music, and life, as if it can be assigned a blueprint. The truth about daily life in Austria, 40 years after the fall of the Third Reich, brings to light a host of unsettling questions for the young American abroad. And that’s the core of this wonderful production. As awful and harrowing as those dark truths can be, sorrow and joy tend to occur at equal intensities. Mashkan half-jokes that there are no great English composers because England has never been conquered, and Germany’s artistic legacy is born in its suffering. He’s got a point, and Stephen’s journey is rooted in this concept: we only really learn to access the deep parts of ourselves, good and bad, through actually living life.
“Old Wicked Songs,” Bristol Riverside Theater, 120 Radcliffe Street, Bristol. Through Sunday, December 5. Pulitzer Prize nominated drama by Jon Marans features the music of Robert Schumann. $31 and up. 215-785-0100 or www.brtstage.org.