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A CurtainUp Review
The Music Teacher

By Simon Saltzman

There are a lot of people in this world about whom you can honestly say that it just doesn't matter if they're alive or dead, and I must say, I happen to be one of those people myself. --- Smith

L-R: Sarah Wolfson, with Lauren Jelencovich, Kristin Knutson, Elisa Cordova, Rebecca Robbins (Photo: Carol Rosegg)

The above quote is the first line in an amusing and intriguing opening monologue delivered by Smith (Mark Blum), a professor of music at a large university. In his early 50s, Smith is blandly non-distinct in appearance but self-effacingly droll as he proceeds to define himself as an unobserved and discreet "collector of beauty." During this discourse to explain himself, we learn that Smith is happily married with children but not terribly involved in the things that are happening to him. His self-evaluation leads him to invoke memories of an earlier time when he taught at "a rather fanciful, rather artistically inclined boarding school."

In this hybrid "play/opera" by Wallace Shawn and his brother Allen Shawn (who composed the music for the opera within the play), and directed with a studious finesse by Britisher Tom Cairns, Smith remembers his life as a young teacher. That he is beguiled but not egregiously distracted by the idolizing teenage girls, members of the school's chorus, might and might not be the contributing factor for his furtive but not particularly harmful off-campus sexual dalliances. On campus, there is Jane (Kellie Overbey) whose devotion to her mentor deepens as it remains academic, even as she obsessively collaborates with him on a school-produced opera. Like Blum, Overbey stays both in and outside the action. Her younger role as Aeola in the opera is played by soprano Sarah Wolfson.

From what is readily apparent in the action or dialogue, there are no counterpoint themes running between life and art. There is a play, however, that requires endurance even more than patience in that it tests our ability to ponder the importance of insignificance, both personal and in general. In this regard, a time-consuming opera -- a rather rigid spoof of the Gluck cum Handel-esque tragic operas that involved ancient Greeks in love and in togas -- apparently serves as a catalyst for a subsequent and rather furtive and disappointing off-campus sexual encounter between Jane and Smith.

The play goes on too long to vainly support the notion that Smith is interesting despite all the evidence to the contrary. And the opera goes on much too long and without enough satiric punch to sustain its length (almost 30 minutes). Allen Shawn's music is, however, quite appealing with only the subtlest waves of dissonance punctuating his otherwise melodic contemporary score. Notwithstanding the purposely silly lyrics and the emphatic way in which they are delivered, the resonating voices of the principals and the 4 voice Greek chorus a.k.a. Nadine (Elisa Cordova), Angelique (Lauren Jelencovich), Janet (Kristin Knutson) and Vocalist (Rebecca Robbins) are charming distractions.

Fawning over the professor isn't restricted to Jane. In one of the few provocative, but barely explored aspects of the play, the more side-lined attentions of Jim, a male student, is noted. He is played with peripheral élan by baritone Jason Forbach. This presumably foreshadows Smith's latent homosexuality that surfaces in a hotel room with a bellman (Bobby Steggert). This incident, however, is part of a 24-hour period during which Smith becomes involved in a bit of indifferently dramatized debauchery. This includes a night of sex (unseen) with a voluptuous restaurant chanteuse (Robbins), and a morning-after-the-night-before fling (unseen) with the waitress (Stephanie Nava). Perhaps it is Shawn's intention for Smith's motivations to be vague and almost dismissive. But, I suspect the play, for all the pretentious embroidery, had to split its intention and its attention.

The acting, particularly from Blum and Overbey, is commendable given the constraints of a text that is mostly either narrative or music propelled. Wallace Shawn is both a respected playwright and an actor whose play Aunt Dan and Lemon, among others and the film for which he wrote the screenplay My Dinner With Andre have been duly lauded. But this collaboration is a curious one, made tepid by its divisiveness and ultimately made tedious by its own design. Shawn's dependence on Cairns' staging is as invaluable as are Cairns' effectively fluid set designs that utilize filmed campus backdrops and both real and mythical locales. Off to the side is a small orchestra, under the direction of Timothy Long that plays winningly among a cluster of trees.

There are a lot of plays in this world about which you can honestly say that it just doesn't matter if you see them or not, and I must say, I happen to think this is one of them.

The Music Teacher: A play/opera
Words by Wallace Shawn
Music by Allen Shawn
Directed by Tom Cairns
Music Director/Conductor: Timothy Long
Choreographer: David Neumann
Cast: Mark Blum and Kellie Overbey, and singers Jason Forbach, Wayne Hobbs, Jeff Picón and Sarah Wolfson, along with Ross Benoliel, Elisa Cordova, Lauren Jelencovich, Kristin Knutson, Stefanie Nava, Rebecca Robbins, Kathryn Skemp, Bobby Steggert and Kristina Valada-Viars.
Sets: Tom Cairns
Costumes: Kaye Voyce
Lights: Matt Frey
Sound: Shane Rettig
Running Time: 1 hour 50 minutes (no intermission)
The New Group at the Minetta Lane Theater, 18 Minetta Lane (212) 307-4100
From 2/21/06 to 4/08/06; opening 3/06/06.
Monday - Saturday at 8:00 PM and Saturday at 2:00 PM (special Sunday performance on April 9 at 3:00 PM.
Tickets: $50
Reviewed by Simon Saltzman based on February 28th press performance
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