Bittersweet Symphony

Seen any good Holocaust plays lately?

Christ hanging on the cross. Self-flagellation among Muslims and Catholics. The Buddha's maxim that life is, at bottom, suffering. The Buddhists who set themselves afire to protest the Vietnam War. The fasting of religious ascetics in order to experience God.

We could go on. But you get the point: there's convincing evidence that we're a species of masochists, spiritual wrecks fulfilled only after a trip through hell.

Or maybe, as Jon Marans suggests in his play Old Wicked Songs, despair and joy co-exist at the core of life: only by experiencing the pits of despair and the heights of ecstasy can we ever hope to gain a deeper appreciation of whatever it is we're doing here.

That's a fine-if hackneyed -principle, but it doesn't work so well in Marans' play, an intelligently written piece that traverses a range of interests from the auditory beauty of the 19th-century German composer Robert Schumann to the horrifying legacy of the Jewish Holocaust. In this Laguna Playhouse production, helmed by Richard Stein, Old Wicked Songs talks and sings a great deal about sadness and joy and passion but never truly feels anything at all.

Except long. And frequently tedious.

The result is a production that illustrates a most unfortunate point: unless a production sings as well as its script, the dreariest kind of theater is that which aspires to be very smart and very cultured.

Old Wicked Songs is a twist on a very familiar tale: old teacher meets arrogant young pupil; they bicker and bluster but eventually come to mutual respect. And, hey, maybe they even care for each other. In the process, each wins valuable insights into himself. In this case, Professor Mashkan (Charles Lanyer) is a Viennese music teacher whose pupil is 25-year-old American Stephen Hoffman (Michael Matthys), a brilliant child prodigy who has mysteriously lost his desire to play in public.

The Holocaust reverberates powerfully throughout this play, which is set in 1986, during Kurt Waldheim's race for Austria's top job. Waldheim, you may remember, was stalled in that effort when critics alleged he was tied to the Nazi party. With that as a backdrop, Marans' characters walk through a minefield of anti-Jewish rhetoric. The anti-Semitism seems forced at times, but in the play's second act, we realize why it's important. Just as Waldheim's campaign forces the world to revisit the Holocaust, it forces the play's characters to re-examine their own complex responses to the event.

This raises the play's dramatic ante considerably, shifting from a grudging battle of wills between student and teacher into a battle over . . .

Over something else. But, frankly, I'm not sure what that something else is. I think it's about accepting who you are, even when such acceptance is tainted with guilt and heartache. But I must confess, by the last quarter of the play, my powers of concentration had leaked into the night. While medication might do something to address my short attention span, I also have to lay partial blame on the play.

Here's the problem: Marans peppers his play with highly refined cultural signifiers: 19th-century German art songs, famous piano prodigies through the ages, and the mournful poetry of Heinrich Heine. When such obscure elements play an integral role in a play, the actors had better be spectacular. The story had better be as compelling as a gun to the head. Old Wicked Songs isn't.

Some of my dissatisfaction stems from the performances. Matthys' Stephen doesn't develop the necessary shades of character. He's supposed to be brash, arrogant, brilliant and irreverent. Early in this performance, he rises to mere prickdom. He warms up as the play continues, however, with his recounting of a visit to Dachau and his reaction to Mashkan's life story. Lanyer's warm and troubled Mashkan is excellent. Special kudos go to dialect consultant Dudley Knight, as Mashkan's German accent seems impeccable.

What's missing from the play as a whole is an intensity that manifests itself in the little things: Stephen runs his finger along a piano wire, slicing it, but the moment is staged, and the pain is played with all the intensity of someone hit by a feather. A teacup shatters offstage, but it sounds nothing like a teacup shattering.

And any momentum in the piece is killed by long blackouts between scenes. Because there are no scenery changes in this play, the only purpose for the long blackouts is to enable the characters to change costumes. The awesome sight of seeing the lights come up to reveal-presto!-Mashkan in a new sweater just isn't worth the wait.

Adding to my lapse in concentration was Dwight Richard Odle's overpowering scenic design. Three enormous reproductions of paintings by Viennese masters-Gustav Klimt's The Kiss, Oskar Kokoschka's Lovers With Cat and Egon Schiele's Seated Couple-loom over the stage. The originals are fantastic, and Odle's reproductions are eye-catching, but the garish colors and terrifying size of the things actually competed with what was happening onstage. I kept trying to figure out why the paintings show lovers in various stages of strained intimacy. (I cheated and looked at Stein's detailed Stage Guide, which isn't available to the average theatergoer, after the fact. It seems the paintings were chosen to "parallel the moods of the Dichterliebe love songs, to reinforce the atmosphere of Viennese culture and to reflect the complex feelings about the city's history presented in the play." Note to herr director: good idea, but it doesn't work.)

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