A one-time piano prodigy, Stephen Hoffman has lost his musical voice. He hopes a trip to Vienna to study with a renowned teacher will reignite his muse. But first he must go through his paces with a singing instructor, Professor Josef Mashkan, for three months before he’s allowed to play another note on the piano.
Mashkan’s assignment to Hoffman: Learn 19th century German composer Robert Schumann’s Dichterliebe, the melancholy song cycle that chronicles the composer’s heady affair with his teacher’s daughter, drawing on the poetry of Heinrich Heine’s 1827 Book of Songs.
The Dichterliebe, heartfelt, gorgeously lyrical, with the yin and yang of joy and heartbreak at its core, is the centerpiece of playwright Jon Marans’ Old Wicked Songs, which follows the evolving and purportedly tempestuous relationship of student and teacher – as the Dichterliebe follows an equally stormy love relationship.
Northern Virgina’s 1st Stage, a well-appointed theater, has revived Bethesda native Marans’ 1997 play about that master-student relationship, set in Austria in the mid-1980s. Here, teacher and student form an uncomfortable and frequently antagonistic bond. In the script, Marans has his characters wrestle with American modernity and Austrian attachment to the past, anti-Semitism and self-hating Jews, honoring the memory of the past and forgetting it. Disappointingly, these dichotomous issues, baldly presented in the course of the duo’s argumentative dialogue, never really heat up believably to move the action or the relationship forward.
Hoffman, the young student played by Aaron Bliden, initially hides his Judaism from his voice professor, but he has promised his father that he will take a trip to Dachau, the Third Reich’s notorious Nazi death camp outside of Munich.
Mashkan, portrayed by Philip Hosford, an acting and piano teacher at the Academy of Fine Arts in Gaithersburg, talks about the deal-making Jews and drawing a comparison to Shakespeare’s notorious anti-Jewish character Shylock. And yet, the actors never capture the inherent drama; it’s even hard to believe the conflict between the pair — they have so little emotional connection to each other, which leaves them with little to build on.
The production is lovingly designed by Kathryn Kawecki, who has surrounded the elliptical stage area and audience with a collage of cardboard placards loosely painted to suggest Vienna’s grand old architecture. A grand piano takes pride of place on the runway-like playing area, while Brian Allard’s lighting wavers between gloomy half-lit Victorian chandeliers and a brighter and harder glow to heighten the little drama that unfolds between this mismatched teacher and student. Kenny Neal’s sound design suggests what’s little-spoken about in the play, the Holocaust. Right at the start, before we meet the characters, bone-rattling sounds of nearby trains haunt memory.
While Old Wicked Songs was a 1996 Pulitzer Prize finalist — the AIDS andgentrification musical Rent won — the play lacks a strong dramatic arc. Playwright Marans relies, instead, on the musical facility of the performers and both Bliden and Hosford play and sing adequately, doing justice to the challenges of Schumann’s song cycle in performance.
What they lack, and perhaps director Michael Chamberlin hasn’t urged them to delve more deeply into their characters’ makeups, is a believable stormy relationship, equivalent to Schumann’s music. Schumann’s songs are about love and forgiveness; with the backdrop of the Holocaust and the Nazis still evident in Vienna in that era, and likely today, playwright Marans attempts to make some pointed connections. Alas, like the misplayed notes on a piano, they fall flat.
Old Wicked Songs runs through May 3, at 1st Stage, 1524 Spring Hill Road., McLean, Va., tickets $15-$28. Call (703) 854-1856 or visit www.1ststagetysons.org.