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'Wicked Songs' comes up a beat short

Some recipes seem destined to succeed. You can use the best sauce, the right pasta, the perfect spices -- but somehow it ends up tasting bland.

Such is the case with Jewish Repertory Theatre's competent production of "Old Wicked Songs," a well-written play that rises past the level of satisfying take-out but falls short of fine cuisine.

It is a production that adds up exactly to the sum of its parts, combining two gifted actors, a thought-provoking script and generally effective direction. There is humor, deep and multilayered complexity and even a dynamic combination of sadness and joy that the play itself harps on but only fleetingly achieves.

The play stars the pre-eminent and always enchanting Saul Elkin (Professor Josef Mashkan) and the fresh-faced and talented young Lou Colaiacovo (Stephen Hoffman), who play a vocal teacher and piano student whose icy relationship turns warm with time.

The story arc mirrors that of Robert Schumann's song cycle "Dichterliebe," which happens to be Stephen's assignment from Mashkan. The song cycle explores a young poet's longing memory of a lost love, while the play, conversely, delves into an old professor's terrible memory of World War II. As the story progresses, so too do the student and professor through sections of the song cycle that mirror the wide-ranging emotions between the two characters. It's a brilliant construction that enables the viewer to confront several issues at once -- anti-Semitism, anti-Americanism, ageism, clinical depression -- without feeling overloaded.

And it would be hard to think of two more charming actors to plant on a Buffalo stage, but then charm is not all this play demands.

The roles, at first look, don't seem to be a stretch for Elkin and Colaiacovo, who not long ago embodied the teacher-student relationship in real life. But in too many spots, their interactions seem less than natural. Colaiacovo seems to be slightly out of his comfort zone here as the prickly Stephen, whose anger at the outset -- and in a raging monologue that kicks off the second act -- is unconvincing. In Schumann's "Dichterliebe," the marks in the music are mere guidelines for an artist's interpretation, but Colaiacovo's dramatic delivery is either double forte or mezzo piano without the necessary interceding crescendos and diminuendos.

"Art," says the professor, "is knowing what the rules are, and knowing when to break them."

Elkin's strange voice and accent -- like a Viennese Yoda -- doesn't help matters, nor does the challenging dialogue, which at times can seem unnatural itself.

Nonetheless, the two have a certain chemistry that makes the lighter spots in the play a great deal of fun and their interactions not altogether stilted. A funny bit of physical comedy between the two provides some great levity after a heavy emotional onslaught, and by the time the play wraps up, some of the awkwardness has managed to evaporate.

The set is nicely designed, save for a garishly illuminated picture window revealing an apparent view of Vienna. Sound cues are occasionally off (at one point, a rumble of thunder preceded a flash of lightning), but generally not distracting.

When all was said and done, though, "Old Wicked Songs" might not suffer from a little more time in the oven.

e-mail: cdabkowski@buffnews.com

***

"Old Wicked Songs"

2.5 stars (out of 4)

Drama running through July 1 presented by Jewish Repertory Theatre in MusicalFare Theatre, 4380 Main St., Amherst. For more information, call 688-4114, Ext. 334., or visitwww.jewishrepertorytheatre.com.

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