UPDATE: OFF-BROADWAY Critics from NY's four major dailies agree though formulaic, Old Wicked Songs is artfully written and acted. A finalist for the 1996 Pulitzer Prize, the play opened Sept. 5 at Off-Broadway's Promenade Theatre.
Writing in The New York Times, Ben Brantley calls Jon Marans' two-character drama "deeply satisfying, remarkably assured." Lavishing praise upon both the "excellent" performances, he affirms the star-status which Justin Kirk developed with his portrayal of Bobby Brahms in Love! Valour! Compassion!, stating the actor "finds delicate variations within his character's angular ferocity."
Brantley concedes that the direction and script "can veer toward excessive cuteness," and admits its "a tear-jerker, all right," but concludes "you'll have no reason to be ashamed of crying."
Similarly, Clive Barnes, in The New York Post, offers qualified enthusiasm. Discussing the playwright's use of Robert Schuman's song cycle "Dichterliebe," based on the poetry of Heinrich Heine, Barnes states "Marans' writing explores the human heart with a mixture of simplicity and virtuosity which (they) might themselves have admired."
Howard Kissel, of the Daily News, calls Old Wicked Songs "a beautiful, ambitious play," and "powerfully acted," but faults the direction, by Seth Barrish, which sometimes gives "the feeling the actors are punching things too hard."
Paradoxically, Aileen Jacobson, staff writer at Newsday, declares "The play's structure is ingenious," but latter complains "that the play also sometimes falls into overtly schematic patterns." Ultimately, however, she admits "It is, in fact, an affecting piece, often very much so."
Old Wicked Songs tells the story of Stephen Hoffman (Kirk), an arrogant, American concert pianist, whose artistic crisis has caused him to quit his performance career. He travels to Vienna to study with a passionate, elderly professor (Hal Robinson). Through the exploration of "Dichterliebe," they rediscover their love of music.
This epiphany is achieved in the context of Austro-German history. In visiting the site of a Nazi death camp, Hoffman develops an appreciation of the holocaust's effects on the lives of his professor's generation. The action takes place in 1986, while Austrian President Kurt Waldheim is seeking reelection. Revelations regarding Waldheim's Nazi past add immediacy to this exploration of identity.
The original NY production, last season at Playhouse 91, was a joint effort by the Jewish Repertory Theatre and The Barrow Group. It also received positive reviews.
The playwright has written comedy for TV's "The New Carol Burnett Show," and toiled as a script editor for Michael Douglas' production company at Columbia Pictures. A previous play, Child Child, won The Preston Jones New Play Award in its production at Houston's Chocolate Bayou Theatre.
In New York, Marans' work has included books and lyrics for two musicals, The Leaves Will Be Off the Trees and Green. Both were commissioned by The New York Shakespeare Festival and latter produced at the 45th Street Theater. Currently, Marans is writing the book and lyrics for Another Year, a musical about a financial shark who abandons Wall Street to teach in an urban high school.
This new production is produced by Jeffrey Ash and Daryl Roth. The Promenade Theatre is located at 2162 Broadway at 76th Street. Tickets are available at the box office or by calling (212) 580-1313.
-- By Kevin W. Reardon