Part buddy play, part music appreciation lecture, part Holocaust drama, Jon Marans’ “Old Wicked Songs” tries to go off in so many different directions that the audience is worn out trying to keep up. And kudos to the stellar performances of Vincent L. Lonergan and the House Theatre’s Shawn Pfautsch in this Christopher Prentice-directed Signal Ensemble Theatre production that we want to—we really do. Their characters are so likable and seem to need each other so badly—Lonergan plays a lonely, crusty old music professor and Pfautsch plays a young, brash and shallow prodigy—that when Lonergan finally agrees to reveal his troubled past to Pfautsch, we feel immensely cheated that the scene simply fades out and we never get to hear the old man’s life story in his own words. Some audience members were so confused by such an awkward fade-out that they began clapping, assuming the play must be over. Even more bizarre—potential spoiler alert—is that we are asked to believe that a man who has survived the horrors of Dachau would make glib, anti-Semitic remarks as a pre-emptive strike in a 1986 Vienna that is about to see Kurt Waldheim become president of Austria despite his then newly revealed Nazi past. Robert Schumann’s song cycle “Dichterliebe” acts as a leitmotiv throughout the play, and both actors are able to play and sing bits of it at a reasonably competent level, Pfautsch having to go from singing it through his head and in a monotone manner to full diaphragm-singing evoking the emotional meaning of Heinrich Heine’s poems. These musical moments of self-discovery are the best in the play, even if they are seldom reflected in how little is ultimately revealed about the characters themselves. (Dennis Polkow)
At the Chopin Theatre, 1543 W. Division, (773)278-1500. This production is now closed.