‘Old Wicked Songs’ at NJT is challenging, thought-provoking

Will Bonfiglio and Jerry Vogel star in ‘Old Wicked Songs’ at NJT.’ Photo: Eric Woolsey

BY ROBERT A. COHN, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus

Vienna, the architecturally gorgeous capital of Austria and the city where Sigmund Freud psychoanalyzed his patients before he fled the Nazis to London, provides the backdrop to “Old Wicked Songs,” a challenging, thought-provoking play by JonMarans, which is appearing through April 3 at the New Jewish Theater.

The two-character play is nimbly directed by Tim Ocel, and features excellent performances by Jerry Vogel as the bitter, conflicted Professor Josef Mashkan, and Will Bonfiglio as Stephen Hoffman, his reluctant American student.

All of the action in the longish play takes place in Mashkan’s music rehearsal studio in Vienna, which gives the drama a claustrophobic quality. The audience can only glimpse Vienna through clouded studio windows. 

The major world event that intrudes into the action is the 1968 Austrian presidential election campaign of Kurt Waldheim, who served as United Nations secretary general from 1972 to 1981. During the campaign, Waldheim was exposed as having lied about his war record as a member of Adolf Hitler’s army in the Balkans. His campaign, which was successful, stirred the still-smoldering embers of the Holocaust and Austria’s role in enthusiastically joining Hitler’s Third Reich in the infamous Anschluss vote of 1938. 

Hoffman, a child prodigy among classical pianists, hit a wall after peaking too early and was emotionally blocked from performing for more than a year. He travels to Vienna to become a student of the esteemed Professor Schiller, who turns out to be in Munich for an extended time.

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So Hoffman reluctantly “settles” for the teaching skills of Mashkan and, in the course of the play, the 25-year-old student learns to be true to himself and to release his creative energies while the older teacher faces some horrifying truths about his own life in Austria. 

In an author’s note, playwright Marans says: “While this is a play, not a musical, almost one third of the show has music in it. Therefore, it’s vital that every production have a musical director.”  That role is filled admirably here by Jeffrey Richard Carter.

While a solid background in classical piano music is not essential, audience memberswho are familiar with Robert Schumann’s “Dichterliebe” will more easily be able to follow the major underlying theme of the play — that music, like life itself, must be given the opportunity to find its authentic voice, and that once found, to give it a full-throated expression.

“Good music is like good sex,” Mashkan says in one of his many jocular asides.

Both Mashkan and Hoffman are hard to read throughout much of the play. Mashkan comes across as a serious artist and sensitive teacher, but he peppers his asides with anti-Semitic references.

Are we to take those jokes as expressions of the kind of anti-Semitic language that should get any professor fired? Or is Mashkan being bitterly sardonic, illustrating the absurdity of anti-Semitism by expressing it literally?

Meanwhile, Hoffman goes through several stages in the course of the play, as an artist, as a Jew and as a man.At first, he is guarded, highly gifted and socially awkward. Though proud of his American Jewish heritage, he sticks with Mashkan despite his anti-Jewish barbs. 

Dunsi Dai, the scenic design and artist, deserves a special shout-out for the stunning set, which serves as a metaphor for the drama: It feels like a musty cave sealed tight for years, but when a window is thrown open, the fresh air of truth and self-acceptance clears away the dankness of denial.