October 18, 2018

Bittersweet Melodies

Teacher and student: Hal Robinson and Justin Kirk (atpiano).

The Geffen Playhouse’s new season opens on a memorable note withJon Marans’ intelligent and bittersweet two-character drama, “OldWicked Songs,” a finalist for the 1996 Pulitzer Prize. This WestCoast production features the same cast that appeared in the play’ssuccessful off-Broadway run at the Promenade Theatre.

Beautifully made and sensitively acted, “Songs” balances painfuldiscoveries with wry humor. On an immediate level, it’s a poignantand sharply rendered portrayal of the relationship between an elderlyViennese music teacher and an emotionally frozen young Americanstudent. But as their connection to each other solidifies, the playdeepens into an exploration of each man’s relationship to art, tohistory, and to the painful question of identity.

The action takes place entirely in Professor Joseph Mashkan’scluttered, Old World Viennese apartment. The warmly inviting set,designed by Markas Henry, is cozy and convincing as an example offaded European elegance fraying at the edges. The walls glow with thegolden patina of age, enhanced by Howard Werner’s evocative lighting.

It’s spring of 1986. Kurt Waldheim is running for president andStephen Hoffman (Justin Kirk) is a stiffly arrogant and giftedAmerican pianist stalled by “performance block.” In Vienna, he hopesto jump-start himself under the tutelage of Professor Shiller, awell-known master teacher. Upon his arrival, however, the 25-year-oldformer prodigy is irritated to discover that, first, he is to studyvoice with Mashkan so that he can find his way back into the musicwith less self-absorption and more generosity of spirit.

It’s an exercise that the tightly wound and impatient Stephenconsiders beneath him, but that doesn’t deter the shaggy andworld-weary Mashkan. The back and forth that ensues between thisartistic odd couple is a central delight of the play. After observinghis new student for a few moments — all nervous tics, rigid bodylanguage and brashly dismissive opinions — Mashkan harrumphs, “I betyou’re lousy in bed.” Like a woman, the older man explains, a pianorequires a well-considered approach illuminated by understanding ifit is to be successfully seduced. Uptight and resolutely skeptical,Stephen tosses the metaphor back at his teacher with the retort,”Half of her teeth are blacked out.”

Nevertheless, the two men forge ahead — working together on the”Dichterliebe” (A Poet’s Love), a romantic cycle of piano/voice duetsby Robert Schumann based on poetry written by Heinrich Heine. Theytake turns with vocals and piano accompaniment. (Kirk’s pianoportions are recorded; Robinson plays his own.) They translate it,discuss it and argue over its relevance and interpretations.

The “Dichterliebe” recounts a man’s emotional journey fromheartbreak and grief toward eventual forgiveness. It’s a compellingmetaphor for the relationship between the two men, as well as forMashkan’s own inner journey from the darkness of his wartimeexperiences to the present. The music itself is woven artfully intothe fabric of the play, with integrity, nuance and clarity.

Along with the music, another presence reverberates powerfullythroughout the drama: Offstage but always there, the Holocaust andits unhealed wounds cast a long shadow, prompting the two men toconfront themselves and each other in ways that leave both exposedand changed by their encounter.

Stephen’s return from a catalytic trip to Dachau at the beginningof the second act shakes him loose from innocence and self-absorptioninto a state of impassioned anger — thawing, finally, a young soulthat has been on ice. It’s at this point, too, that Mashkan’s owninner torments are revealed, illustrating dramatically theprofessor’s advice to Stephen in the first act about art’srelationship to pain. “This combination of joy and sadness,” he saysof the “Dichterliebe,” “is at the core of all beautiful music…ofdrama. Of life.”

Entering the minefield of the Holocaust is tricky terrain for adramatist, but, thankfully, Marans avoids exploitation or easysentimentality, particularly in his development of Mashkan’scharacter. As the two men work on the “Dichterliebe” with growingintimacy, the voice teacher counsels his student, “If you understatethe grief, we’ll feel it more,” and this seems to have been theplaywright’s own guiding principle with regard to such a dark andcomplex subject.

There is a false note, however, in Stephen’s sudden epiphany afterDachau. Although it’s entirely believable that an assimilatedAmerican Jew in his mid-20s may breeze through life with littlereflection about how his own identity is tied to recent history, theHolocaust seems to have never even occurred to Stephen before hisvisit to the concentration camp, implying a naiveté andcultural illiteracy that strains credibility.

Still, it’s one dissonant passage in an otherwise seamlesslywritten play, astutely directed by Seth Barrish. From Robinson’sopening chords to Kirk’s final coda, both actors demonstrate a keenunderstanding of the material. They play off of each other withimpeccable timing, as is illustrated in their ongoing and humorousbattle over the giving and taking of pastries, a witty and winningleitmotif that tells us much about the evolving state of theirfriendship.

Kirk does a fine job of fleshing out Stephen’s transformation.With tightly controlled body language and a distinctly nasal, almostatonal voice, he changes from a stiff and supercilious youth whosemusical gift is a joyless, technical exercise into an awkwardlyblossoming man, enlivened by a new understanding of life and art.It’s Robinson, however — last seen locally in the Taper’s productionof “Nine Armenians” — whose impassioned performance as Mashkan is atthe heart of this satisfying production. He inhabits the crankyteacher’s battered soul with subtlety and depth, breathing immediacyand life into “old, wicked songs.”

Through Sunday, Nov. 2, at the Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le ConteAve. in Westwood. Tuesday through Thursday, at 7:30 p.m.; Friday, at8 p.m.; Saturday, at 4 p.m. and 8:30 p.m.; Sunday, at 2 p.m. and 7p.m. For ticket prices and other information, call (310)208-5454.