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Theater review: 'Old Wicked Songs' at the Colony Theatre

February 9, 2012 | 11:34 am

Austrian professor Mashkan (John Towey, right) tries to teach his high-strung American student (Tavis Danz) to breathe in “Old Wicked Songs” at the Colony Theatre.
Hey, Burbank studio execs, here’s an idea for a reality show set right in your backyard: Who can watch “Old Wicked Songs” at the Colony Theatre without falling in love with John Towey?

If it sounds easy, you haven’t experienced this veteran actor’s endearing portrayal of Professor Josef Mashkan in Jon Marans’ Pulitzer Prize-nominated play.

Plot-wise, “Old Wicked Songs,” first produced in 1996, could be seen as a clunky and manipulative tear-jerker or a delicately layered, well-made drama — or, somehow, both. Stephen Hoffman (Tavis Danz), an American former child prodigy who has lost his zest for performing, arrives in Vienna to study piano with a famous instructor. But the professor, for some professorial reason, has assigned him to study singing with Mashkan first.

Because this is a play, Stephen is so tightly wound that he wears a suit and tie, while the droll, wisecracking Mashkan relaxes in a woolly cardigan. Because it’s a play, Stephen submits to the unwanted lessons, enabling the men to learn a lot from each other and discover mutually startling truths and, ultimately, deep mutual affection. And because this play is set in 1986 in Vienna during the election of Kurt Waldheim, their tumultuous, cross-generational bromance becomes an allegory of Austria’s struggles to move on from, or even forget, its Nazi past.

The grand piano in Mashkan’s rehearsal studio, a sumptuous and gorgeous set by Stephen Gifford, is essentially a third character. Both actors play it beautifully. Marans has woven his knowledge about, and passion for, Robert Schumann’s song cycle “Dichterliebe” — and for music in general — into the story with unusual grace, informing without ever seeming to lecture, and director Stephanie Vlahos guides the remarkably natural performances with a light hand. 

Although Stephen is a bit of a pill, even after he loosens his tie, the handsome Danz finds his charm in a sensitive and witty portrayal. And Towey’s nuanced and fully inhabited Mashkan makes a fairly stock character — the teacher who urges the student to unbend, make love, live life to its fullest, etc. — irresistible.


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--Margaret Gray

“Old Wicked Songs.” The Colony Theatre, 555 N. 3rd St., Burbank. 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 3 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Ends March 4. $20-$42. Contact: (818) 558-7000, ext. 15 or Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes.

Photo: Austrian professor Mashkan (John Towey, right) tries to teach his high-strung American student (Tavis Danz) to breathe in “Old Wicked Songs” at the Colony Theatre. Credit: Michael Lamont.