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Old Wicked Songs

New Jewish Theater, 2016

Richard T. Green – Talkin’ Broadway

For a while there, I was afraid I was the only one enjoying Jon Marans' drama from 1996, at the first Sunday matinee. Everyone else seemed awfully quiet.

The New Jewish Theatre's Old Wicked Songs is over two hours long and can be somewhat challenging, so you can imagine what I was thinking, as the show went on with a not-so-live audience. But actor Jerry Vogel still managed to fill the stage with old world charm, in spite of it, and Will Bonfiglio, (as his student) made a difficult but rewarding journey to self-completion.

And then at the end, half the audience leaped to its feet, applauding with great excitement. So I wasn't the only one who was transported to Vienna, recalling better (and some much worse) days.

It's part song and piano recital, and part self-made wake. But director Tim Ocel also crafts the conflict between a young man and an old man into something grand, where each of the two regenerates the other into something hale and hearty, against all odds. It is renewal through conflict, in the rarest kind of war: one that rebuilds the soul.

And it's funny—only rarely "laugh out loud" funny, but you'll still feel the smile in your brain, curving upwards between your ears at regular intervals. The despair of life is observed flatly (for the most part) and appraised with something like indifference, leaving joy to pop up like a weed between the cracks.

Mr. Vogel (whom you may remember as the sleek, silver-haired executive near the end of the George Clooney movie, Up in the Air) has utterly transformed himself yet again, this time resembling the Marvel comics legend Stan Lee, but with a flawless Austrian accent and a musician's dreamy hand gestures. Watching him here is like spending a morning in a fascinating European coffeehouse.

Mr. Bonfiglio is Stephen, a burned out child piano prodigy, trying to start a new career as an accompanist. He carries not just the burden of failed expectations but (as an actor) the burden of being the prickly, standoffish lad as well: tormented for two hours by his new teacher's relentless poking and prodding. And yet his final breakthrough is so uplifting as to make us forget all the anguish he's brought with him, into his teacher's studio.

Professor Mashkan (Mr. Vogel) has plenty of reason to be prickly and anxious himself, but with more perspective, and we learn how much the two have in common and what each man is hiding, and how the professor's perspective holds back the darkness, leaving room for any good thing that might still come his way.

There are big themes, which are almost unnecessary in the hands of two such eminently watchable performers: oppression and creativity as a dialectic; the sometimes elusive self-hatred of Jews; and where to go when all of life has seemingly run out. But those are just the parsley on a very crowded plate in a production like this.

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