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The Music Teacher

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Are you convinced that opera is the most exciting, emotional, and visceral experience you can have this side of sex? Well, then how about a trip to the Minetta Lane, where The New Group's production of Allen and Wallace Shawn's theatrical Lunesta The Music Teacher will convince you that both can generate as much pulse-racing excitement as a Friday evening washing the dishes?

If you can rouse yourself to alertness long enough to pay attention to what's happening onstage, you should either be congratulated or smacked upside the head: It'll be the achievement of your theatregoing season, to be sure, but it's not worth the trouble if you expect to be affected emotionally. That's not what The Music Teacher does: Billed as "a play/opera," it's nothing more than a simultaneous assault on two innocent art forms.

The play finds the titular music teacher, Mr. Smith (Mark Blum), recounting his bizarre relationship with one of his students, Jane (Kellie Overbey), and the other repressed desires (mostly sexual) he allowed himself to unleash in a series of increasingly unhealthy ways. The opera is the work that Smith and Jane wrote and starred in while she was his student at college, and which represents the sad pinnacle of their personal and professional lives.

If you like, you can view the opera's story of two Greek men and one Greek woman screeching their ways through intertwining romances and the pedestrian rigors of modern life as a reflection of Smith's conflicted sexual identity. That's doubtless what lyricist Wallace and composer Allen intended from the production-within-the-production, which consumes practically a third of the show's 105-minute running time. What's harder to understand is why the opera consists of nothing but especially bland recitative, devoted tangentially to relationships and heavily to exposition and topics as head-scratching as toast in an especially bizarre breakfast table scene. (If this is a sly comment on Smith's unsuitability for his job, it's also an unbearable one.)

The Music Teacher's only real aria isn't sung in the opera at all, but by a chanteuse (Rebecca Robbins) haunting a hotel bar a desperate Smith eventually visits. The song, about the necessity of grabbing what you can while you can and sorting everything out later, occupies specific emotional real estate that gives its surrounding scene a dramatic import otherwise entirely lacking in the show. That the music accompanying it is of vague country-western tonelessness not far removed from that in the opera itself is somewhat beside the point.

What is not, however, is that neither Blum nor Overbey has anything to do with its effectiveness. Both actors, who don't sing a note, sleepwalk through the proceedings as though they've been asked to perform at the Met five minutes after waking up. Forced as they are to utter roundabout pronouncements of their own ideas about art, and explain the complexities of the relationship they shared by describing various sex acts in highly detached and almost clinical terms, one can't blame them for injecting no personal truth into their roles.

Blum momentarily summons the longing of a man surrounded by people and things he can't have, but there's not enough joy to present a contrasting picture of what he might be missing; Overbey, fruitlessly trying to project a world-wise maturity over her young, good-girl image, is totally at sea. Director Tom Cairns is too concerned with staging opera in-jokes (black-clad stage hands waving flashlights and laser pointers during the opera, for example) and coordinating his false-proscenium set design with Matt Frey's lights and Greg Emetaz's video projections to give them the guidance they need.

Faring much better are the opera singers themselves, directed and conducted by Timothy Long to make the most of their moments in the Shawns' unforgiving spotlight. The three lead roles of Young Smith, Young Jane, and Jim, the boy who comes between them, are all double cast, and I had no vocal complaints with the trio I saw, Wayne Hobbs, Sarah Wolfson, and Jason Forbach. They've got rich, expressive voices that elevate the unfortunate music they must sing into something almost listenable. At least they give you something to focus on in the midst of a show and a show-within-the-show that's tedious at best and torturous at worst.

Their only problem? Their weight. From the instant the opera - and, let's face it, The Music Teacher - starts, you're praying for that famous fat lady to trot out onstage and let loose. These singers, however, are all depressingly svelte.

The Music Teacher
Through April 9
Minetta Lane Theatre, 18 Minetta Lane (Off of 6th Avenue between Bleecker and West 3rd Street)
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Ticketmaster

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