Out of Tune

A violinist deals with a loss of her powers - and herself; a play at the English Theatre

Sasha Wadell and Howard Nightingall perform in Duet for One | Photo: Courtesy of the English Theater

Sasha Wadell and Howard Nightingall perform in Duet for One | Photo: Courtesy of the English Theater

Duet for One

Sasha Wadell and Howard Nightingall perform in Duet for One | Photo: Courtesy of the English Theater

The pristine quality of professionalism we take for granted at Vienna’s English Theatre is again on peacock display in Duet for One, at Vienna’s English Theatre until Oct. 18. A riches-to- rags psychological melodrama, Duet for One  is, despite its name, a two-character play. is counterbalanced by. The drama is set in the office of psychiatrist Alfred Feldmann (Howard Nightingall),  meeting with patient Stephanie Abrahams (Sasha Waddell), a renowned concert violinist stricken with Multiple Sclerosis.

In an obvious reference to the tragedy of the great French cellist Jacqueline du Pré, the play traces the musician’s path through the stages of denial, grief and a kind of accommodation following a loss of almost unthinkable magnitude.

From the first, the doctor seems to do as much harm as good, tactically undermining Stephanie’s initial coping mechanisms meant to clad her physical demise in winningly cheerful energy, exposing an underlying glint of panic and peevishness. Ms. Abrahams’ personality disintegration will intensify during Act Two until the climax – an emotionally explosive scene of classic counter-transference when the doctor unravels before a mildly surprised Stephanie, permitting the play to end on a sort of up-note of psychological rebirth. To achieve this, however, Stephanie has to give up the “image” of her former self.

Waddell has a wonderful voice and brings to the part of Stefanie a highly inflected range that is as modulated as a violin, and as nuanced. Her expressive face, her radiance and poise, and a perky never-say-die courage would have been enough to elicit our pity, but the script is careful to avoid the larger dimensions of tragedy. Howard Nightingall, too, plays his role as Dr. Alfred Feldmann with stoic strength and a measure of sincerity, the often trite lines oblige him to remain gallingly static – at best like the unbending pillar around which a merry-go-round of frailer humanity whirls. And yet he also holds the whip, and without his prodding Stephanie Abrahams would have no motivation to perform her “duet for one.”

Fortunately, Kempinski as Feldmann, doesn’t indulge in true ‘shock therapy,’ for although Feldmann is hell-bent on regressing his patient, ideally to gain new understanding, his techniques are sufficiently inane. He seizes upon Stephanie’s initial declaration that “fortunately” she has no children, and leads her back into her family nexus where, we watch the skillful Wadell reenact the mothered Stephanie – good-natured and future directed — and the fathered Stephanie – rebellious and adolescent.

All of these past lives are re-created within the control of Stephanie the adult, however, so, even as she unravels before our eyes, wheeling her armchair wildly about the stage frenetically singing “over the moon”  like a “loon”, she never comes across as inherently ‘sick’ or ‘loony.’ Although she comes close, as when she suggests Dr. Feldmann “is an idiot,” and flings in his face his fees of “150 pounds an hour” as she rolls dramatically out of his office.  His response is close to heroic; he lets her know she has hurt his feelings, and that he is not the pillar which her raging anger has made him.

Designer Charles Cusick Smith’s rounded set for the psychiatrist’s office – an opaque glass wall and a immense bookcase of  tapes, CDs and records – attempts to neutralize the angular dialogue. There is also a touch of blue to evoke the blue armchair Ms. Abrahams fell over in her childhood: two tubular chairs, a picture, and eight blue jugs squatting on the upper bookshelf and perhaps meant to call to mind Sigmund Freud’s collection of primitive statues.

Duet for One

Sasha Wadell and Howard Nightingall perform in Duet for One | Photo: Courtesy of the English Theater

Director Hans-Peter Kellner never gets a secure grip on Dr. Feldmann’s inconsistent empathy. He tries to toughen up the role so that sympathy reveals manipulative edges. Once, to counteract his patient’s wooly depression, Feldmann plays Abrahams a CD of one of her own performances. She ignores the bait: “I was flat,” she says dismissively. He says nothing – no attempt to soften the loss with palliatives of her place in the firmament of music history. He finds her neediness exhausting, and propping himself up with bonbons and water – none of which he offers to the patient –  while she struggles to get in touch with her “true feelings.” But wasn’t this a process he set in motion and that he considers therapeutic?  He becomes less sympathetic and less believable.

But worst is Feldmann’s dialogue, which over-explains his role of psychiatrist and reveals what should be subconscious procedural matters instead of rock-solid technique.

Still, Duet for One is well worth seeing. But remember this is a melodrama, so don’t take every line unduly seriously. When Stephanie tells Dr. Feldmann she is “still not sure” she should have come to see him, it is meant to be funny, as is her line “I’m not going deaf as well as stiff, am I?” Both nights I attended Duet for One, Stephanie told her doctor, “You’re a terrible audience” with an abundance of gusto, and I wondered if she were not talking, as well, to us.

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