Old Wicked Songs is that well-crafted brand of Off-Broadway theater that thrives in the hinterlands. The title refers to those songs of Franz Schubert that warm the soul and melt emotional frostbite. As in the well-hewn tradition of Driving Miss Daisy, two opposites (the grain of sand and the oyster) generate compelling friction to generate a dramatic pearl. Add a dollop of anti-Semitism, a pinch of Old World vs. New World debate, the Holocaust, the joys and pains that go into the making of a classical musician, well-wrought comedy and pathos, and the result is a play compelling enough to stop that elderly matinee matron from noisily unwrapping her candies.
Set in 1980s Vienna, the play focuses on a neurotic, tightly wound American pianist (Plate), suggestive of a musical Norman Bates without the homicidal impulses. Emotional burnout has led to atrophied musical skills, and he seeks in Vienna the emotional nourishment to regain his technical expertise.
Waiting to play professorial Auntie Mame to a Dustin Hoffmanish alienated student is one Professor Mashkan (Reuben Silver). Emanating the conflicting taste of bittersweet chocolate, Silver oozes Viennese schmaltz and Faginish roguery as he overcharges his student for each pasty eaten; along the way in his performance, there are intriguing glimmers of Father Christmas, Humpty Dumpty, and Sigmund Freud.
When Plate's student first enters, he is knock-kneed with anxiety. His performance brings to mind Harold Lloyd's nervous young men--bespectacled, overachieving go-getters. He clutches his briefcase like a shield against the creative Viennese life force that permeates the air. His gradual transformation to a healthy artistic life is a sight to savor, as though one is watching a wilting plant return to bloom and vigor.
The first act is in The King and I "Getting to Know You" mode, with two cultures racing at each other with the ferocity of bumper cars. The cerebral, emotion-starved American gives a toxic wince every time he is confronted with the slightest speck of emotion, sex, or spontaneity. His polar opposite is the gracefully crumbling professor, hoarding shillings while paradoxically handing out life lessons.
Among the professor's life-affirming rhetoric, rancid whiffs of a dank anti-Semitism pop up: a pungent reflection of the surrounding Vienna that is all Strauss icing on the surface and ages-old hatred and moral decay underneath.
Like all playwrights who hope for future royalties and a possible film deal, Marans knows how to skillfully pull the rug out. In Act Two, the dire revelations and confessions come tumbling down. The audience is suddenly in a hall of mirrors, never quite sure who deserves their admiration or disgust.
The Silvers once again prove that theater pros, like good buildings and fine wine, only improve with age. Likewise, Scott Plate demonstrates that all revelations don't take place in other cities, and that not all the best talent has gravitated to New York.
Cleveland theater audiences are notorious for their empty approbation; here, for a refreshing change, is an evening that rates a standing ovation of the spirit.
Old Wicked Songs, through Feb. 7 at the Jewish Community Center, 3505 Mayfield Rd., Cleveland Heights, 216-382-4000.