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Old Wicked Songs

New Jewish Theater, 2016

Judith Newmark – St. Louis Post-Dispatch

We’re in Vienna, 1986. Outside the slanted, dusty windows of an old-fashioned rehearsal studio, we can glimpse the spire of the great cathedral, Stephansdom. Inside, Professor Josef Mashkan (Jerry Vogel) plays Schumann on a gleaming piano, draped with a creamy shawl. Dissatisfied with a note, he slaps his right hand with his left — and a young American called Stephen Hoffman (Will Bonfiglio) bursts into the room.

In just those opening moments, the New Jewish Theatre’s production of Old Wicked Songs tells us plenty. We have place; we have tension; we have beautiful music.

And all of those elements will remain constant. But don’t assume too much. As playwright Jon Marans unfolds his elegant and haunting story, he catches us by surprise time and again.

True, some St. Louisans may remember those surprises because the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis staged the drama in 1998. But if you remember “too much,” don’t worry; this production doesn’t need revelations to strike you to the marrow. It can accomplish that entirely through emotion.

Under Tim Ocel’s tender direction, Vogel and Bonfiglio deliver beautifully modulated performances, from that first note to the last. The actual notes of Schumann’s “Dichterliebe” provide a rich underscore to the actors, thanks to (recorded) performances from the play’s music director, Jeffrey Richard Carter.

Stephen, the American, was once an acclaimed piano prodigy. But at 25, he hasn’t performed in more than a year; he’s inexplicably blocked. In desperation, he’s traveled to Vienna to work with a celebrated piano teacher.

But to Stephen’s disgust, the great teacher won’t see him for months. First, he wants him to study with Mashkan — who teaches voice! The whole idea is insulting, Stephen scoffs.

Mashkan points out that even to return as an accompanist, Stephen must respect and understand singers. If internalizing music is really the goal, Mashkan understates it tactfully.

But he’s not tactful about much else. As Stephen resists, lips pursed and back rigid, Mashkan places a firm hand on his torso, to show him how to breathe. Mashkan serves pastries, then charges for them. He disparages Stephen’s manners (which are deplorable), but his own conversation is peppered with anti-Semitic remarks. A teacher could get fired for saying such things, Stephen bristles. That doesn’t stop Mashkan.

In the course of their classes and other meetings in the studio, the men learn a lot about each other. Even before he’s accepted Mashkan entirely, Stephen begins to loosen up, something Bonfiglio reveals in small but definite changes in posture. An ace with body language, he even lets us see Stephen’s jaw relax. Michele Friedman Siler’s costumes, evolving toward jeans, help him make his point.

And as Mashkan, Vogel delivers his second important performance of the season. The first was as a troubled Irish widower in “Shining City” at Upstream Theater. The widower was very open, but Mashkan is a man with lots of secrets.

In a studio (designed brilliantly by Dunsi Dai) accoutered to evoke the alluring, artistic Vienna of the prewar years, Mashkan tries to guide his technically gifted student to his own passion. But can he do that without revealing too much of himself?

Vogel allows us to glimpse his struggle. As he sips a demitasse of coffee or delicately uses his fingertips to extract coins from a cut-crystal dish, he lets us in on the mechanics of distraction. Ultimately, of course, distraction fails.

The young man trapped in spirit and the older man trapped in memory have to open up to each other. That’s the only way they can confront complicated questions of identity and of how the past is reshaped, or not, as time moves on.

This is where Marans shines most of all: He’s a dazzling wordsmith who is sparing with words. And he’s right to be wary. Words can trick us: People hide things, they distort them, they flat-out lie.

Marans, knowing that, employs them with care — and finally gives up on them altogether. In the climactic scene, Vogel and Bonfiglio don’t speak at all.

Instead, they mime a conversation so intimate and so sacred that it transcends language — just the way music does.

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