1st Stage carries a tune with its extended, unremarkable run of the Jon Marans play.
1st Stage carries a tune with its extended, unremarkable run of the Jon Marans play. Credit: Handout photo by Teresa Castracane

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Buried in the rear of a McLean strip mall, past a UFC gym, its theater space battling for attention with the thumping rhythms of the Jazzercise class next door, 1st Stage seems a strange locale for a stately lesson on high art. But the Silver Line is full of surprises. Old Wicked Songs, a two-decade-old two-hander about classical music, modernist architecture, and European postwar anti-Semitism, has recently extended its run at the theater by two weeks, to May 17.

The Jon Marans-penned play follows the relationship between Stephen Hoffman, a petulant Jewish-American piano prodigy, and Josef Mashkan, the cultural-nationalist teacher who’s been foisted on him, in 1986 Vienna. The show was nominated for a Pulitzer in 1996, performed at Studio Theatre the year after, and hadn’t been glimpsed in the area since. Its runaway success at 1st Stage meshes oddly with how this production seems ready to fade away quietly, tepidly, into its script at any moment.

Director Michael Chamberlin stages the action in a fraction of his theater’s available space, among minimal set design by Kathryn Kaweck. The two actors—Aaron Bliden as the young, arrogant Stephen and Philip Hosford as Mashkan—play their own piano parts, as the roles require. Stephen, trained as a soloist, resents being forced to learn accompaniment skills, but the entire work is about accompaniment: the acting with the musicianship, the personal tensions with the political ones. Bliden, sitting at the keys, unleashes a string of impressions of famous performers (Vladimir Horowitz, Glenn Gould), and even this standout solo moment is an accompaniment of sorts: the gifted actor balancing elements of craft and shtick, never letting the scales completely tip.

When they’re not tickling ivories, what are these gents stewing over? Nothing less than the soul of Austria. The main point of contention is Dichterliebe, Robert Schumann’s cycle of songs about the changing of the seasons. But Marans weaves this expertly with discussions of Austrian politics. Kurt Waldheim, whose revelations of a Nazi past did not deter his successful ’86 campaign for prime minister, is practically a supporting player. The country has produced so many great artists because it has known a truly unique level of suffering, contends Mashkan, who then gets strangely pithy when Stephen brings up the suffering of his people (the student will later recount a painful visit to Dachau).

It all remains impeccably written 19 years later, which may be why Chamberlin is content to let his production fade unremarkably into the written word—to accompany its enlightenments, without offering any new ones. The brief exception is Brian S. Allard and Kenny Neal’s remarkable lighting and sound design in the play’s opening moments. They begin in pitch black with a soundtrack of industrial noises before gradually awaking us with soft light from the piano-mounted lampshade, as Hosford wordlessly introduces us to the Austrian classical music his character admires so much.

Yet afterwards, the production spends its time realizing only the first half of Mashkan’s definition of art: “Knowing the basic rules, and realizing when it is time to deviate from them.”

1524 Spring Hill Road, McLean. $15–$28. (703) 854-1856. 1ststagetysons.org.