Echoes from the Holocaust

According to playwright Lee Marans, Old Wicked Songs, his searingly funny Pulitzer Prize nominee from 1996, will be the second most produced play in regional American theater this season. Theatre Three snagged the script for its Southwestern premiere and has blessed us all with a magnificently paced, poetically performed production--and that was my impression after only its second preview performance.

It's really considered unprofessional, or at the very least impolite, for a critic to review a preview--the equivalent of pronouncing a lover inept even after you discover you were the first. I can't imagine what was left to be polished before opening night, but if this show gets any better, ticket-buyers' heads will explode from the play's oft-repeated twin inspirations of joy and sadness--an unintended and messy consequence that T3 executive director and co-star Jac Alder would not incur, no matter how much he loves visceral reactions from his audiences.

Old Wicked Songs is likely, a generation from now, to provide staple monologues for acting classes and auditions. For a playwright, this is a compliment, a curse, or both, one of those unofficial lifetime achievement awards that would seem to guarantee that no professional theater company will rediscover the whole play, since actors weaned from it may dismiss the script as preparatory material. I certainly don't wish that fate on Marans, at least not with this play, but his richly conceived comedy about national guilt and the right of every individual to interpret his own tragedy as he sees fit brandishes its wealth of themes so openly and simply, it may be destined to be taken for granted, then revived for future audiences who will have forgotten how desperately they need to see it.

This is not to say that Old Wicked Songs, which is set in Vienna, Austria, in 1986, traffics in sentimental overtures and universally accepted pieties. Lee Marans' bittersweet comedy about the confrontations between an anti-Semitic but deeply passionate Austrian music teacher and an American Jewish prodigy who discovers his heritage while studying in Europe is bold in its treatment of a 20th-century horror that seems to grow more distant the more it's publicized. Remembering the Holocaust can provide an important history lesson, the playwright seems to be saying, only if its example can be expanded beyond the "Jewish victims/German monsters" paradigm that has ruled World War II commentary for decades. Hasn't it struck anyone else as ironic that at the same time Steven Spielberg's Schindler's List was picking up breathless acclaim all over the world, thousands of Bosnians were dying from a campaign of ethnic cleansing that many wanted to ignore? Remembering the Holocaust, one could argue, has become a substitute for actually learning from it.

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Of course, the world is as politically complex today as when an economically strapped Germany brought Adolf Hitler to power in democratic elections. What Old Wicked Songs dares to suggest is that a Jew-baiting old Teutonic who lived through fascism and two world wars might have something to teach a 25-year-old Jewish man who has earnestly but rather clumsily embraced a tribalism he was born too late to understand. This somewhat startling conceit only hits you fully after the play is over, because the author and Theatre Three do such an exemplary job of rendering the two characters as fragile individuals, not spokesmen for particular agendas.

Stephen, the young American Jew in question (Ashley Wood), is a technically brilliant but anxiety-ridden pianist who resents the fact that he's been compelled to study voice under a charming but intermittently hateful old vocal coach named Mashkan (Jac Alder). The two, needless to say, get on about as well as a pair of alley cats thrown into the same cloth sack. Mashkan displays great sensitivity toward the great musical talents of history, claiming that they all came from oppressed races or nations. His compassion hits a brick wall when it comes to legendary Jewish talents like Vladimir Horowitz and Leonard Bernstein. The presidential race of "suspected ex-Nazi" Kurt Waldheim is the hot topic in Austria at the time and provides plenty of opportunities for Mashkan to drop vicious comments about his Semitic neighbors, the least offensive of which is "Why is everyone always carping about the Jews?"

Stephen, who has never been particularly religious, fulfills a promise to his father and visits Dachau. He returns sporting a yarmulke and a fresh but unfocused rage about what, to him, had previously only been a dimly conceived European atrocity. Between equally contentious music lessons, he and Mashkan grapple in a quip-laden contest over German national guilt that results in the old Viennese man admitting what he did during World War II--and it's not at all what Stephen expected.

As directed by Thurman Moss, this brisk and engrossing production has the rat-a-tat-tat verbal rhythms of a particularly deft Neil Simon comedy. But this particular clash of generations, national identities, and musical philosophies serves us more than just a farcical odd coupling, thanks to a pair of intelligently observed turns by Jac Alder and Ashley Wood. Alder is the 36-year Dallas theater veteran who, along with his wife, Norma Young, founded Theatre Three; he acts only occasionally these days. His performance as Mashkan--streaks of wit, self-pity, bigotry, and conviction slashed across a refreshingly small canvas--is a sly treasure. Wood--so soon on the heels of his last T3 performance in David Hare's Racing Demon--is doubly impressive for turning in such distinct interpretations of vaguely similar characters. His smug Anglican priest in Racing Demon was a fresh-faced traditionalist with powerful Christian convictions; his Jewish Stephen is equally passionate, but far less confident about his religious principles. As played by the same actor, both are as distinct, in my memory, as completely different people. Wood knows how to inhabit a character.

Old Wicked Songs takes some fairly unique gambles with issues and people we've come to understand in a certain way, but playwright Lee Marans racks up the chips because he adroitly balances his humanitarian and critical instincts. Jac Alder and Ashley Wood cash in on the playwright's winnings with their skill at understanding how anger is a guide to their characters' wounds. It's rare that two opponents in a politicized debate show each other their scars. Sitting on the sidelines, we get to see the faces behind the raised gloves.

Old Wicked Songs runs through February 1. Call 871-3300.

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