Those conspiratorial whispers are back—swishing, insinuating, growing from a snakelike hiss into a harsh cacophony of innuendo. From their buzzing effervescence come two words, barely distinguishable at first, then more insistent: “Salieri…” and “Assassin….”

It is, as many theatergoers (and some moviegoers) will recognize, the most efficient scene-setting overture written in this century—an overture composed entirely of sibilance and suggestion, and composed not for an opera or a musical, but for a supremely clever play about artistic jealousy. The world into which it ushers us—the rarefied world of Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus—is nothing more nor less than a brilliantly literate puzzle, in which language has perfect pitch and genius is measured in octaves.

As lushly recreated at Olney Theatre, it’s also a world awash in rococo ornament, where golden statues, glittering waistcoats, and see-through architectural pediments provide a shimmering background for the author’s arguments about art and mediocrity, and the relation between behavior and ideas. Vivid, strikingly acted, and ecstatically musical, the production is a feast for

about as many senses as an audience cares

to indulge.

The play, which posits a rivalry between musical prodigy Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and a less celebrated composer whom history had largely forgotten until Shaffer made him famous again, takes the form of a murder mystery. On the last day of his life, in 1823, Antonio Salieri, court composer to the Austrian emperor and one of that era’s most popular cultural figures, claims to have murdered the impoverished Mozart some 32 years earlier. No one believes him, so by means of a musical invocation he summons posterity to bear witness to his tale.

Posterity—that’s us—doesn’t believe him, either. Still, we love a good storyteller, and this guy’s a master, whether he’s portraying Mozart as a giggling, scatology-obsessed tyro or himself as an envious second-rater blessed with a terrible ability to recognize genius in others. That was true at the play’s 1982 American premiere at D.C.’s National Theatre, and it’s no less true today. Just listen to the words with which Mitchell Hébert’s Salieri conjures the moment he first fell from grace while hearing a Mozart serenade:

“It started simply enough,” he says, eyes glazing over as a faint wisp of music wafts into the theater. “Just a pulse in the lowest registers—bassoons and basset horns—like a rusty squeezebox. It would have been comic except for the slowness, which gave it instead a sort of serenity. And then suddenly, high above it, sounded a single note on the oboe. It hung there wavering, piercing me through, till breath could hold it no longer, and a clarinet withdrew it out of me, and sweetened it into a phrase of such delight it had me trembling. The light flickered in the room. My eyes clouded. The squeezebox groaned louder, and over it the higher instruments wailed and warbled, throwing lines of sound around me—long lines of pain around and through me. Ah, the pain! Pain as I had never known it…What is this pain? What is this need in the sound? Forever unfulfillable, yet fulfilling him who hears it, utterly. It seemed to me that I had heard a voice of God…”

That’s about as evocative as language is going to get in describing sound. In 1982, as I sat at the National Theatre listening to Ian McKellen say those words, I assumed that what was producing the catch in my throat was the synchronicity of the actor’s art, Shaffer’s description, and Mozart’s transcendent brilliance. I’m sufficiently wary these days to test such theses. So, after choking up at the same passage out at Olney, just to see what would happen, I went home and threw a Bach requiem on the stereo and read Salieri’s description aloud from the script. It worked just as well. My guess is that a Celine Dion ditty would work, too. It’s Shaffer’s language that sings, with or without accompaniment. It’s astonishing writing—rich and enormously theatrical.

Which is not to suggest that a well-tuned vocal instrument can’t help send it soaring. And in Hébert, Shaffer’s words find a passionate advocate. Even in repose, the man seems on the verge of springing urgently into an argument. He can also be at once soulful and snippy, which makes him a perfect match for David Conaway’s obscenely giggling, yet ultimately wrenching, Mozart. There’s a wonderful passage in which Conaway is describing the glories of a vocal quartet, and Hébert is watching him helplessly, captivated by wordplay that’s as musical as the music it’s describing yet horrified by his own fascination—and by the certain knowledge that this reverent soliloquy will be capped by that giggle he so hates.

The two leads are backed by a top-notch supporting cast. James Kronzer, who usually works behind the scenes as Olney’s resident set designer, is clearly having a bewigged and beribboned ball as Joseph II, the dilettantish Austrian emperor who tells Mozart his compositions have “too many notes.” Conrad Feininger, Harry A. Winter, and Traber Burns are briskly amusing as the emperor’s three separately deluded musical advisers, while Carolyn Pasquantonio starts out impetuous and ends up at once haunted and haunting as Mozart’s faithful wife.

Jim Petosa’s charged, seamless staging surrounds them with that rococo riot I mentioned earlier: wigs and costumes provided by Helen Huang, gilded pilasters by Dan Conway, and all of it dappled rapturously by Daniel MacLean Wagner.

It’s probably worth mentioning that Amadeus underwent a major transformation in D.C. on its way to Broadway back in 1982. The play was already a London sensation when it arrived at the National with Tim Curry playing Mozart, McKellen playing Salieri, and the author playing play-doctor to a script no one else thought was ailing. During the D.C. run, Shaffer proved doubters wrong by sharpening his second act and making Salieri less an observer and more a determining factor of Mozart’s demise. Prior to the tinkering, Amadeus could never have struck anyone as having much film potential; after the changes, Hollywood interest was all but assured.

Those who’ve seen the movie, however, have only seen about half the play. For while the screen can absorb an endless amount of music—far more than the stage—it quickly reaches a saturation point when it comes to words. This factor forced Shaffer to trim the philosophical meanderings and operatic musings considerably in his screenplay and to place far greater importance on the plot. On stage, the mystery machinations are mostly there as a framework for musical debate. On screen, the music provides the framework, and a lot of lovely verbiage is lost.

All of which argues in favor of a trip out to Olney. As with last season’s sexualized, deconstructed, white-on-white Importance of Being Earnest, whether you come to this Amadeus fresh or simply leave it with fresh discoveries, you’re going to find it pretty damn enthralling.

I don’t much like making generalizations about living playwrights, but I’m becoming more and more convinced that Jon Klein simply doesn’t have much to say. That hasn’t kept him from saying it, and winning awards in the process, so I’m clearly in the minority on this. I found his portrait of an empty rural existence pretty empty itself when his road comedy T-Bone and Weasel played out at Round House a few seasons ago. Earlier this season at Arena Stage, his grandly titled domestic comedy, Dimly Perceived Threats to the System, struck me as more a tricky production concept than a play. (The baby boomer characters kept having Ally McBeal moments as they contemplated affairs.)

And now, Woolly Mammoth’s off-hours production is trying to make a case for Klein’s Peoria, which is as near to a dramatic nullity as I’ve seen in quite a few years of playgoing. The premise is essentially that we should tag along as the playwright follows married suburbanites Rick (Michael Russotto) and Jane (Rena Cherry Brown) through a typical day and discovers how meaningless their lives are. Rick’s a chicken inspector. Jane’s a tour guide at the city’s water tower. Their marriage is empty but cordial, their kid is enrolled in a day-care center where the proprietor tells stories in which everyone dies, and no one wants to print Jane’s History of Peoria manuscript because it isn’t average enough. Are we having fun yet?

It’s not that Klein’s a bad storyteller. He was pretty adept with narrative in Dimly Perceived Threats. But here, he’s not bothering with a story at all. The evening barely qualifies as a series of sketches, modestly enlivened by acting fillips. Brown has a nifty way of dropping the doll that represents their baby whenever she loses interest in it, and Russotto gets lots of mileage at one point out of what appears to be a Fargo-accented Pee-wee Herman impression. Meanwhile, Rick Fiori’s staging does what it can with drawers, hidden doors, and altered perspectives. More, really, than can reasonably be expected. None of which keeps the 75-minute show from wearing out its welcome somewhere around its midpoint. CP