nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
August 21, 2008
I expected a show entitled Schoenberg to offer some interesting enlightenment about the man who (as the play itself has it) was the most influential composer of the 20th century.
I also expected that a show from Theatre Rhinoceros—a San Francisco-based company that describes itself as "the nation's longest-running queer theatre [that] develops and produces works that enlighten, enrich, and explore both the ordinary and the extraordinary aspects of our queer community"—to have some gay themes or content in it. Schoenberg does not; how it satisfies the company's stated mission is a mystery, as is the reason that they selected this, out of all their recent works, to import to New York for FringeNYC.
We do get a few glimpses into Arnold Schoenberg's musical genius and contributions here, as well as a few samples (mostly snippets, from recordings; definitely leaving me wanting more). But most of the insight John Fisher's play provides about its eponymous leading character has to do with subjects other than music: war, psychology, theology, and the trivialities of Hollywood pop culture are the main topics of banter (if you can call it that) between Schoenberg and Oscar Levant, the play's other character. Levant, famous more for being a radio personality and raconteur than for being a serious musician, wants to learn composition from Schoenberg. (This apparently actually happened.) But whatever important lessons Levant may have gleaned from the master are mostly absent from this very brief, very disappointing play. And although flirtation is alluded to in the early moments of the piece, thee men are presented as resolutely asexual (in the case of Schoenberg) and heterosexual (in the case of Levant).
Playwright Fisher portrays Schoenberg and is also the director; his staging is bland and feels stretched out, with long transitions between scenes that aren't justified dramatically and that aren't necessary to cover set or costume changes. Matt Weiner plays Levant. Neither man feels convincing in his role, and the age difference (Levant was nearly 30 years younger than Schoenberg) is not communicated at all.
Interludes between scenes feature video by Chris U'rem and Gene Mocsy and music (presumably Schoenberg's). The last sequence was especially problematic: stills of concentration camp victims, bodies piled up ready for mass burial, are accompanied by the disturbing dissonant music that is Schoenberg's signature. But the expressionism I heard did not amplify or comment on the grim reality I saw: if anything, both felt diminished by their awkward juxtaposition.
Schoenberg (billed as 90 minutes in the FringeNYC program guide and 60 minutes in its own program, but in fact less than 50 minutes long when I saw it) is perhaps as slight a work of theatre as its possible to make about two larger-than-life musical geniuses of such different stripe.