Marin theaters Wicked play has a haunting secret

Imagine a play about two Jews pretending not to be Jews, starring two non-Jews.

That’s the skinny on “Old Wicked Songs,” an award-winning 1996 play opening Thursday, March 16 at the Marin Theatre Company. Written by Jon Marans and directed by Barbara Damashek, “Old Wicked Songs” blends comedy and tragedy to tell a story about art, culture and identity.

The two stars couldn’t be more enthusiastic about their roles. Mark Farrell plays a classical pianist with a bright future. Jarion Monroe plays a music teacher with a dark past. The two come together for master classes that turn into much more. Both characters are Jewish, but that isn’t revealed until late in the play.

“He’s a cocky kid from California,” says Farrell of his character. “He studies with a famous teacher in Vienna, but it all starts off on the wrong foot.”

That’s because both teacher and student keep secrets. But as they delve into Robert Schumann’s famed song cycle “Dichterliebe” (the old wicked songs of the title), the two get to know each other better.

At first, the old professor seems anti-Semitic; the young student claims he is a Protestant. Over the course of the play — which features plenty of music played live on stage — devastating truths come out.

“That’s what I love about this play,” says Monroe. “The balance of elements. Much of it deals with sadness and joy. Audiences will have a transformative, cathartic experience.”

Though “Old Wicked Songs” is a two-character play, Monroe says the grand piano that dominates center stage is like a third character.

“I’m at the keyboard a lot,” he says, “We both sing quite a bit. It’s all operatic.” Farrell plays too, and though both actors have some piano training, in this production they both play like Rubenstein, thanks to the magic of modern technology.

“There are moments when I play,” adds Farrell. “We use a disklavier, which is like a player piano. And I do sing.”

So both actors are good at pretending to be classical musicians. But how about playing Jewish?

“I’m Irish-Italian,” says Farrell, “but there must be something about that combination that everyone thinks I’m Jewish. I have a friend who runs a theater company in Berkeley who crowned me an honorary Jew. I so often play Jewish characters.”

That was true even when he starred in “Fiddler on the Roof” back at Moreau Catholic High School in Castro Valley. He went on to study theater at Cal State Hayward, and later landed many plum roles at top local theater companies, including the Willows Theater, 42nd Street Moon, Playground and five previous productions at Marin Theatre Company.

Monroe, too, has a sterling pedigree in Bay Area theater, having starred in productions at A.C.T., Berkeley Rep, San Jose Rep, Cal Shakes and many others. He also made the rounds in Hollywood, playing the recurring role of Henri in “Frasier.”

Co-starring in “Old Wicked Songs” is a feather in both their caps. The play won the New York Drama League and L.A. Drama-Logue Awards.

Farrell says he is up to the rigors of a demanding two-character play, especially the challenge of playing a Jew. In fact, he’s glad he isn’t playing to type. “It’s always dangerous for anyone to play anything they think that they are,” he says, “because they won’t look for new meaning.”

Monroe is equally impressed with the play, and thinks it has something important to say to modern audiences.

“His past must be dealt with,” he says of his character. “We’re losing so many people of that time, and the great danger is forgetting. I love the way this play deals with that admonition: ‘Lest we forget.'”

“Old Wicked Songs” runs Tuesday-Sunday, March 16-April 16 at Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Ave., Mill Valley. Tickets: $22-$47. Information and showtimes,

call (415) 388-5208.

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.