Autumn Canticle

Walnut Street Studio III, 9th and Walnut Sts., through March 9, 574-3550 ext. 4.

The Walnut Street Theatre's studio series had something of a success two seasons ago with The Old, Wicked Songs, a two- character play about mortality, identity and classical music, set in a wood-trimmed music studio crammed with scores and dominated by a grand piano center stage. The play went on to productions in New York and London and onto the short-list for the Pulitzer.

So one can understand why the Walnut management was excited when the noted actor David Ogden Stiers brought them John W. Lowell's new play Autumn Canticle, which he wanted to direct.

This play has many of the same elements: two characters (well, two important ones), mortality, identity, the same scores scattered about, the same piano filling the tiny Studio III stage (decorated by the same team of designers).

This time we're in 1972, in the Hudson River Valley mansion shared by baritone David Williams (William M. Whitehead) and composer Peter Billings (William McCauley), who had fallen in love on the first day of their first class together at Curtis 30 years before, and have been concertizing together and living together ever since. Like the British composer Benjamin Britten and tenor Peter Pears, Billings composes some of his loveliest and most personal vocal music for Williams, and Williams has made a career of singing Billings' work, most often with Billings at the piano. Like Samuel Barber, Billings has been largely silenced by the failure of an overproduced grand opera in New York 10 years before. Billings has just returned from open-heart surgery. The prognosis, we later learn, is not good.

By the end of the third act, Autumn Canticle has several sweet and simple things to say about partnership and love in one's older years (well not that old -- the two characters are in their early 50s), when confidence and creativity have faded along with sexual desire (in one of the partners, at least), when spouses have withdrawn into the shell of habit and polite distance and lies, and how, in the face of death, a life-long love can be acknowledged if not exactly rekindled, and life and love can be celebrated as "a suspended chord with no resolution."

But it's a long journey to get to so sweet and simple a conclusion.

Williams is a portly, pompous, overrefined (and overwritten) windbag, played at one pitch by Whitehead, even when we're supposed to see the real feelings beneath the character's bluster. (The role appears to have been tailor-made for the acting talents of Stiers; he was wise to have chosen to direct and not to act, but it would take an actor of his skills to make Williams deep and sympathetic.)

McCauley is much simpler and sweeter and sympathetic as the ailing and reserved Billings in the first two acts; but when he's in his cups in the third act, betrayed and angry, he becomes as bitchy and as shallow as Whitehead's Williams.

There's little chemistry between the characters (or between the actors), who dance around one another testily throughout much of the play; when they finally touch at the end of the first act, when Williams briefly caresses his partner while Billings is stumbling through a Schubert Impromptu at the piano, I wanted to cheer. And the love/power/attention triangle between the two and Walker, a graduate student/amanuensis in corduroys and hushpuppies, is wholly unconvincing.

But Callum Keith-King, as Walker, does get to deliver one of the play's loveliest speeches, an extended description of seeing Billings and Williams in concert years before and sensing the love that flowed between them and in and through their music-making. We don't see anything like that actually happening between the two in Lowell's play, or in Whitehead and McCauley's performances, until the very end of the play. And even then, I wish it was as palpable and as a beautiful to behold as it had been for Walker years before.

-- Cary M. Mazer