Restraint and Refrains

The grim masochism squeezing at the heart of brothers Allen and Wallace Shawn's delicate new musical, The Music Teacher, first appears to be nothing more insidious than a bit of urbane self-deprecation. After a brief, filmed montage of snow-covered groves and teenagers lounging in idyllic fields—all blurred just enough to indicate that we will be watching a memory play—the fifty-something Mr. Smith (the wonderful Mark Blum) casually settles into his spot before the audience. "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," he tells us. The otherwise caustic comment is endearing for what comes next: Smith, the titular music teacher, admits without rancor that he considers himself one of them.

Wallace, playing writer to Allen's composer, frames the piece as a wistful reminiscence. Yet, even before we're properly situated in the memories Smith will be exploring—his stint, 20 years past, as a music instructor at a small, rural liberal arts boarding school—we are aware that there was a schism in his life and that we are looking with him backward across the fissure. And as with any such retrospection, hindsight reveals that the tendrils of misfortune reach further back than expected, into moments that seemed entirely innocuous at the time.

For Smith, it's the occasions he spent teasing, and being teased by, his teenage students. "So are you girls planning on going swimming today?" he asks in the first scene. To which one female pupil gently mocks, "Oh—why do you ask that? Do you want to come too, Mr. Smith?" "Yes, well—what I might like to do and what I'm going to do are two entirely different things," he responds. Self-restraint, we find, is no different than any other indulgence: it is best taken in moderation. Smith suffers from an excess. And this conflict—what is desired versus what is attempted—quickly becomes a refrain, both spoken and unspoken. Later, as part of the miniature, wonderfully scored opera occupying the middle of the piece, it will be sung.

This mini-opera, in fact, is both the story's fulcrum and its masterstroke. Pushed into composing it by his two favorite students, Jane and Jim (Kathryn Skemp and Ross Benoliel at the performance I attended), Smith finds that he focused like a laser on its completion. After its performance, in which Smith, Jim, and Jane—who is also the librettist—play the leads, every ounce of energy the teacher has worked to suppress is released into his life like an atom bomb. Jane, whose older self (Kellie Overbey) describes her role in the aftermath with beautiful simplicity, is especially devastated by what follows.

The power of The Music Teacher isn't immediately obvious. The piece gives us a before-and-after view of a man's life by walking us over the bridge between the two. But Teacher never goes so far as to give that bridge a name. An audience member is left, instead, to compare one end of the journey to the other and draw his or her own conclusions.

I, for one, appreciate the courtesy. Wallace, no stranger to the war zone of sexual torment (his Marie and Bruce and A Thought in Three Parts spring to mind), is lyrical without being florid. Allen, himself a music professor at a rural, liberal arts institution, is gifted both technically and as a stylist—note the difference between the rhythmic, almost Stravinskian melodies of the "musical theater" songs and the markedly (sometimes satirically) Verdian sweep of the operatic score. Neither brother says more than is needed. Their restraint, unlike their poor protagonist's, is healthy.

The only times Teacher falls flat are the few instances when the two authors fail to support a given moment with an appropriate theatrical convention. A modern overcoat and an English breakfast setting are brought into the Grecian courtyard of Smith and Jane's magnum opus. (I must note here that the set, which transforms smoothly from numerous school settings into an ancient garden and back again, is a great credit to designer Tom Cairns.) While such anachronisms are admittedly amusing—an older couple behind me seemed near diaphragmatic distress—one needn't be an opera scholar to realize that they would quickly earn a teacherly veto.

Musically, the only nonstarter is an ostensibly seductive nightclub number—an oddity for a composer so comfortable with style. Allen is unwilling or, I suggest less confidently, unable to move away from the rhythmic and harmonic complexity that is his home ground. Crooning requires a certain structural and melodic simplicity. Without this, the warm bedroom eyes of the seducer turn into the cool appraisal of the collector.

This, not coincidentally, is what Smith lists as his secondary profession. He doesn't collect anything that can be put under lock and key, though. Rather, he is a collector "of experiences…of beauty." While running his riches through his fingers one lonely night, he adds, "I had kept my life a secret because I wanted no one to be hurt by me, and I had harmed no one." But, in fact, it is Smith who has been hurt. And, when we stop to reflect on it, we have been too.

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