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Paulanne Simmons

"The Music Teacher" Is Not Your Typical Preceptor

THE MUSIC TEACHER -- Jason Forbach, Wayne Hobbs.

"The Music Teacher"
Directed by Tom Cairns
Minetta Lane Theatre
Presented by The New Group
18 Minetta Lane, off 6rh Ave.
Opened Feb. 21, 2006
Mon.-Sat 8 p.m., Sat. 2 p.m., special Sun. performance April 9 at 3 p.m.
$50 (212) 307-4100 or www.ticketmaster.com
Closes April 9, 2006
Reviewed by Paulanne Simmons March 17, 2006

Allen and Wallace Shawn wrote "The Music Teacher" 23 years ago when Allen was 34 and Wallace was 29. This “play/opera” about a fussy, intellectual music teacher named Mr. Smith and the opera he wrote with one of his students when they were both young and horny is a work of relative youth. It was originally rejected by every producer who looked it over. And one can easily see why. "The Music Teacher" is slow, unwieldy, boring and at times downright bizarre. But it is also deliciously obscene, charming and often very funny.

It was perhaps for all of its latter qualities that Scott Elliott, artistic director of The New Group fell in love with "The Music Teacher" when Wallace, whom Elliot had directed in last year's revival of David Rabe's "Hurlyburly," showed it to him. Elliott, however, is directing Shaw's new translation of “The Threepenny Opera,” scheduled to open this March at Studio 54, so he turned the direction over to theater, opera and film director Tom Cairns.

Cairns' direction of "The Music Teacher" is notable for its distinctive staging (Cairns also created the sets), which uses video, a scrim, a stage within a stage, and musicians playing in a corner under the shade of a tree to evoke the prosaic world of a small boarding school and the hallucinatory world of the imagination and the past.

But Cairns seems uncertain about the underlying premises of the work. Is it about a repressed professor and his erotic fantasies (Smith's activities include onanism, voyeurism, homosexuality, and rather brutal sex). Is it a satire of opera, which is parodied in a pseudo-classical piece about infidelity and revenge, complete with a Greek chorus? Or is it a psychological study of an aging professor looking back on the youthful adventures he had or wishes he had? There is nothing wrong with ambiguity, but it should be the result of intent, not uncertainty.

There is nothing ambiguous, however, about Mark Blum's portrayal of the older Smith, or Wayne Hobbs' of the younger Smith. It takes an accomplished actor to turn himself into someone as stiff and uncomfortable as Smith. And Blum and Hobbs' performances are exemplary.

The cast also includes many accomplished singers. Although this makes for pleasant listening, it also makes "The Music Teacher" even more confusing.

If the opera is supposed to be so bad (the lovers become aware of their passion over a dropped spoon; their wounds are conveyed by a red ribbon, pulled down by stagehands wearing black), why do the singers sound so good? This conundrum is compounded by Allen Shaw's music, which is quite interesting (Shaw's credits include chamber and piano music, ten orchestral works, song cycles and choral works, two chamber operas, music for ballet and incidental music for theater), if not always entirely appropriate to what's going on in the opera.

The night I saw "The Music Teacher", many people left scratching their head. If they had laughed they wondered if their laughter had been uncalled for. If they hadn't laughed, they wondered if they should have. Some admitted to sleeping through parts of the opera. Many were intrigued.

There definitely is a dry, unconventional wit at work in "The Music Teacher." There are also some serious psychological questions posed. And the show has a delightful absurdist tone. If the contradictions in "The Music Teacher" could be reconciled but not eliminated, the Shawn brothers might be able to create a truly unusual and groundbreaking work.

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