By Jon Marans
Directed by Seth Barrish
Promenade Theatre
2162 Broadway at 76th Street / (212) 580-1313

Reviewed by David Spencer

The formula is familiar, in two-character plays. Two seeming opposites are pitted against each other. One is inhibited, uptight, unliberated–seemingly worldly but, in fact, closed to all the wonders the world has to offer. The other is more of a free spirit, attuned to life's nuances, despite having a simpler sensibility–or deceptively simpler, since inevitably we will learn that there are more layers here than can be discerned at first glance. And the free spirit is, of course, thoroughly undaunted by the rigidity of his opposite number. One way or another, the free spirit will wear down the resistance of the jaw-clencher...and along the way they'll both learn something about each other and about life and yadda yadda yadda.

Been there, seen that.

Even as I write this, "Grace and Glorie" is doing the bumpkin-and-sophisticate variation of this dance over at the Roundabout, well enough to get its laughs, manipulatively enough to wring a few obligatory tears, yet never artfully enough to make you totally forget the artifice. At its best, it is sincere, but it is never utterly convincing.

And now, at the Promenade, there's Jon Marans' "Old Wicked Songs", which has the brass cajones to try the familiar configuration again and try to make something of it that we haven't seen before.

Just how well it manages to succeed at this task is the subject of this review. Or rather, it would be, if I felt in good conscience that I could spoil its surprises. So really, the subject of this review can only be about craftsmanship: theory and abstraction, without direct example...but I'll do the best I can.

The premise for the story sketches out like this: The year is 1986, the place is Vienna, Austria. A young pianist, Stephen Hoffman (Justin Kirk) shows up for lessons at the rehearsal studio (really a reconverted apartment) of Professor Josef Mashkan (Hal Robinson), an old timer. Hoffman is a prodigy, still young, early twenties, and already burned out. Uptight and anal, he is also resentful, because he has been assigned this private class with Mashkan who is not a piano teacher, though he does have some passing facility at the piano. No, Mashkan is a vocal coach, and this course of study is meant to loosen Hoffman up. It is meant to attune him to the humanity of other people–personified by the singers he might accompany some day–and to reacquaint himself with his own passion...singing songs in such a way as to connect with their meaning at the deepest level.

No matter how brusque or rude Hoffman is–and his behavior is, most of the time, willful–Mashkan remains maddeningly avuncular and undiscouraged. But he's not oblivious, though; he knows he has a very tough nut to crack. And his plan is to crack it with Schumann's song cycle "Dichterlieber" ("The Poet's Love").

That's it. Synopsis-wise, that's all you get. And now, using almost none of the above information, I'm going to try and explain why playwright Jon Marans has created a minor, but eminently notable coup de theatre.

First of all, the play is meticulously plotted. In an odd way, it brings to mind Anthony Shaffer's "Sleuth", maybe the best stage thriller ever, which is also, for all intents and purposes, a two-hander, and stays marvelously afloat because it has two cleanly and charismatically defined characters who keep turning the tables on each other by revealing themselves, in layers, to be each more complex than the other expected.

There is a similar construction to "Old Wicked Songs"; no, the characters don't try to "one-up" each other, there is no gamesmanship (at least not conscious gamesmanship)...but as their relationship develops, we begin to realize that neither one is quite what he presented himself to be at first appearance. These are men with secrets, and they drop their veils one at a time.

Screenwriters talk about "reversals," meaning, the trick of taking an audience to an expected, familiar place, and then doing the opposite of what was indicated. Too many reversals and that trick becomes schematic too (we are so jaded now, that even some reversals have become familiar: who among us, having been spoiled by David Ward's script for "The Sting", can't spot a "fake betrayal" a mile away?)...but Mr. Marans provides just the right number...and just the right kind. Better still, they are humanist reversals; they don't alter the plot, per se, which remains the growing closeness of the two men...but they unexpectedly and suddenly deepen your understanding of the characters and what drives them.

The second thing Mr. Marans pulls off is perhaps contemporary drama's most innovative use of "source" music (that is, music that is acknowledged as such on stage, as opposed to underscoring). "Dichterlieber" is not just fodder for Hoffman's lessons...but it comments on the action in a way that manages to be obvious while avoiding heavy-handedness–an amazing balancing act.

Marans also, in one powerful moment, allows music to take over when words would trivialize. Again, I dast not spoil the moment, but I can cite one like it from yet another movie. It happens in "The Firm", the thriller based on the Grisham novel in which a young lawyer is recruited by a hot-shit legal outfit that we slowly discover, is–as they say on "NYPD Blue"–mobbed up. We discover further that the lawyer, played by Tom Cruise, and his equally young wife, played by Jeanne Tripplehorn, are under constant surveillance–listening devices in every room, on every phone, and God knows what kind of visual monitoring.

We also learn that Cruise is being squeezed, by the firm on one side, and by a government agent, sensing his moral vulnerability, on the other. We learn all this in painstaking detail, it is, structurally speaking, the entire "first act" of the film, we neither need nor want to hear it all again, it can only bore, or waste time, or make us impatient unforgivable in a thriller–

–and yet there is one important plot point that paradoxically demands we go through it all again. Cruise has to impart this horrible knowledge to his wife, who has thus far remained out of the loop, and has no idea what kind of trouble they're in.

But the movie-makers spare us, ingeniously, and heighten the tension into the bargain. And here's how they do it. Back at home, Cruise maneuvers Tripplehorn to a position by the stereo. He puts a finger to his lips, indicating that she should be quiet. Then he flips on music, dance music, loud, the music drowning out everything else on the soundtrack, and pulls her in close, as if for a slow dance or a romantic clinch, only it's not romantic, because we know that when he begins whispering to her, the camera cutting back and forth between his lips moving close by her ear and her ever widening eyes, the whispers are anything but sweet nothings, and as the music builds, his grip on her tightens, an observer might mistake it for passion, but we know Cruise is trying to ground her, somehow, because as the extent of the violation sinks in, he can feel her starting to panic, but his hold isn't strong enough and suddenly she breaks free of his grip and bolts the hell out of the house...

The masterstroke of the moment, as you have of course figured out by now, is that we are spared the retelling–but we are still not deprived of the wife's reaction in real time.

In "Old Wicked Songs", Mr. Marans' masterstroke is quieter, subtler, a moment of catharsis rather than a moment of mounting tension–but it is similarly inspired.

One more note about the music. The illusion of the two men as gifted pianists–they don't play everything that seems live, just enough to fool you–is complete. In a way, I hate to spoil the fact that the playing of the more difficult passages is an illusion (and to be honest, I didn't suss it out; my friend and colleague, Skip Kennon–composer-lyricist for the upcoming "Time and Again"–did) but it is done so flawlessly that it demands acknowledgment. I won't tell you how they do it...but I will say it has the potential to be a much-imitated technique in future.

The direction of Seth Barrish on Markas Henry's thoroughly convincing low-rent European flat set, is as poetic and musical as the text. As for the actors–Justin Kirk as the student puts one in mind, somewhat, of a young Tom Hanks, while retaining a persona very much his own. Hal Robinson as the teacher is gratifying on any number of levels. Certainly it is a complex portraiture, capable of eliciting, or banishing, audience sympathy, as required, and for that, plaudits are deserved. But Mr. Robinson is one of those old pros who have been around forever, a good utility player, never a star, rarely given a chance to shine–and he finally has a chance to create a worthwhile role memorably. There'll probably be a movie version, and they probably will get a star for that...but for those lucky enough to see Hal Robinson's performance onstage, the echoes will not fade easily.

Go, then, to see "Old, Wicked Songs". Then tell your friends to go. And don't tell them much of anything else...

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