September 19, 2008.By Ed Huyck, Talkin’ Broadway.
Raye Birk and Jonas Goslow get a workout in Jon Maran's Pulitzer-nominated play, moving through the full range of emotions over the course of two hours. Yet Old Wicked Songs is much more than an acting exercise. The play delves deep into the teacher/student relationship, with side trips into the music of Robert Schumann and the Holocaust for good measure.
Set in Vienna during the 1980s, the two characters are at opposite ends of their careers—Goslow plays Stephen, a prodigy pianist who has lost the thrill of playing, while Birk takes the role of Professor Mashkan, an irritable vocal coach who has been assigned to work with the pianist and teach him singing.
From there, each character unpacks a number of troubles, central among them being the professor's anti-Semitism and Stephen's attempts to deal with his personal connections to the Holocaust. The Schumann music acts as a third character, providing both topics for conversation and commentary on the action.
If anything, the script may be a little too pat—with events dropping in at expected intervals and ending with a fairly clear resolution—but the two performers are the real stars here. Birk, a longtime theater vet (and current Scrooge at the Guthrie), inhabits every unpleasant corner of his character, but still makes him a human and sympathetic figure. Goslow has a tougher role, as Stephen has fewer opportunities for depth. Both of them perform naturally together, drawing us into the heart of the play.
The music (pre-recorded piano and then live singing from the duo) wonderfully accents the story, as does John Clark Donahue's gorgeous set. Theatre Latte Da leader Peter Rothstein directs the entire affair with an easy touch, letting the actors bring their talents to the table and making for a thrilling and engaging evening.
Old Wicked Songs runs through October 5 at the Joe Dowling Studio, Guthrie Theater, 818 S. Second St., Minneapolis. For tickets and more information, call 612-377-2224 or visit www.guthrietheater.org. Recitals of Schumann's Dichterliebe, with Bradley Greenwald and Sonja Thompson, at 4 p.m. September 21 and 28 and October 5, Dowling Studio. $15.