Actors Keith Baker and Teddy Warren fit their roles admirably in playwright Jon Morans’ “Old Wicked Songs”, a drama set to music that is running now though February 4 at GableStage in Coral Gables.
Set in Vienna in 1986, the story involved the conflict between an aging music professor Josef (Baker) and his aspiring young piano student Stephen Hoffman (Warren) that earned Morans a Pulitzer Prize in 1996. The story involves gripping tensions between the professor and his student over composing a song over the piano and, as the drama evolves, over the personal relationship between the two characters through different upbringings.
Josef is a proud Austrian who is not undaunted by the prominence of former United Nations ambassador Kurt Waldheim, who was involved in Nazi activities during World War II. Stephen is Jewish and visited the Dachau Holocaust concentration camp during a break from studying. The two men had their differences while playing piano and singing composer Robert Schumann’s “The Poet’s Love” in German, but the stakes of the relationship become higher and burst in a climax when Stephen resumes his work on the piano with Josef after returning to Vienna.
Adding to the realism of the play is the ability of both actors to play piano proficiently and the music matches the growing hostility and resentment by Stephen to Josef’s indifference regarding Jews in Austria or elsewhere. This is highlighted when Stephen returns to Vienna after returning from Dachau as a changed man who has become very proud of being Jewish.
The hostility shown by both men is expressed not only though dialogue but in music. The piano playing becomes more rapid and profound as if Josef and Stephen are trying to outdo each other in terms of their sophistication of playing the piano keys. The hostility is captured in this verbal exchange: “You almost tried to rape my piano,” Josef tells Stephen after playing “The Poet’s Love” in a fast tempo. Stephen then dons his yarmulke (skull cap worn by Orthodox Jews) and states to Josef: “It’s time Vienna saw some Jews who were proud of their heritage.” Furthermore, when Stephen asks Jose if he thinks Waldheim is a Nazi, Josef replies “It’s 1986, who cares?”
Marans, who also directed the play, addresses the issue of anti-Semitism in subtle ways as it was in 1986 Vienna. Because of the talents of both actors, as well as their ability to shine on the piano, the play seems realistic as the hostility builds between Josef and Stephen. There are surprising facts revealed in act two that cultivate a common bond for both Josef and Stephen, even as their hostility grows. Adding to the realism of the era is scenic designer Frank J. Olivia’s set with period furniture, an antique clock and a gramophone.
Playwright Jon Marans wrote and is the director of “Old Wicked Songs”, a two act drama with music, running now through February 4 at Gablestage, 1200 Anastasia Ave. in Coral Gables. Performance times are 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. on Wednesday, January 31, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. on Thursday and Friday, February 1-2, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. on Saturday, February 3 and a 2 p.m. final performance on Sunday, February 4. Tickets range from $40-65 and can be purchased at gablestage.org or by calling 305-445-1119.