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Old Wicked Songs

New Jewish Theater, 2016

Mark Bretz – Ladue News

Story: Piano prodigy Stephen Hoffman has traveled to Vienna to meet with a music professor named Mashkan. Hoffman, a young man in his early 20s, has been suffering from writer’s (or composer’s) block for more than a year. He wants to study with a famous German teacher, but first that professor has required that Stephen take several weeks of sessions with the renowned Mashkan.

The purpose of the lessons is to teach the young pianist how to complement and not overwhelm a singer, something the inflexible Stephen has had difficulty accomplishing. Carefully, the eccentric Mashkan tries to mold his young student into a generous and genial musician.

With his rigid posture, sober face and omnipresent tie for “self-discipline,” Stephen is a quirky individual albeit a highly talented one. He’s arrived in Vienna during the presidential election year of 1986, but this is no ordinary campaign. It features Kurt Waldheim, former Secretary General of the United Nations but also a man who was suspected of numerous war crimes from his time as a lieutenant in Army Intelligence attached to German units in the Balkans during World War II.

Mashkan’s flippant, indifferent references to Waldheim’s past, combined with his use of anti-Semitic language, sound odd and further alienate the tempestuous American pianist. Still, he finds ways to reach Stephen’s tortured soul, whether through pastries he provides at a fee or his comparison to a piano as a lover that should not be pounded but caressed, relying on the music of Robert Schumann and the poetry of Heinrich Heine to deliver his philosophy.

Can this genuinely odd couple find a commonality in their approach to music? And will Austria’s presidential election be a statement about the country’s defiant defense of its sordid past with Nazi Germany or a step towards progress?

Highlights: New Jewish Theatre currently is staging a powerful, poignant and penetrating production of this look at two men at crucial crossroads in their lives. Director Tim Ocel carefully extracts convincing performances from Jerry Vogel and Will Bonfiglio that leave a lasting impression on their audience.

Other Info: Playwright Jon Marans’ two-act drama was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in 1996, and with good reason. It’s a handsomely crafted story that cleverly weaves the music of Schumann and poetry of Heine into a tale of two tortured souls looking for redemption and the motivation to keep living.

The mood of wariness and weariness is established up front on Dunsi Dai’s impressively designed set that captures the essence of Mashkan’s rehearsal studio. It's filled with old furniture, Persian rugs, an ancient radiator to heat the place, a large window and even a stuffed fox in the foyer, incorporating Kyra Bishop’s winsome properties. It’s also hauntingly lit with Maureen Berry’s well-conceived lighting.

Robin Weatherall’s sound design enhances the mood of the production, from ominous rumblings of thunder to the soft texture of Schumann’s music. The costumes designed by Michele Friedman Siler well represent Mashkan’s status as an elder as well as Stephen’s stiff personality with clothes designed to repress any would-be notions of freedom or individuality before he dons more relaxing garb later.

As the scholarly Mashkan, Vogel delightfully reveals the surprising humor in Marans’ script, casually evaluating Stephen as he remarks, “You are stranger than you look,” in an accent aided by Katy Keating’s dialect coaching.

Ocel’s pacing is smooth and his interpretation of the play’s dramatic moments refined and accomplished. Much of the drama is devoted to the cat-and-mouse dialogue between the two characters. There’s a palpable rhythm in their conversations, well matched by how the two actors utilize their movements and gestures to provide further shadings of their roles.

Vogel is an accomplished practitioner of the acting art, and it’s highly satisfying watching how he reveals the depth of the pain and emotional suffering of the older musician. It’s further fulfilling to see the young Bonfiglio accomplish much with his reading of the pouting and immature Stephen, offering his own surprising revelations along the way.

Old Wicked Songs delves into the familiar theme of the Holocaust with carefully crafted artistry that is as thoughtful as it is affecting.

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