12ness Review

Theater review: 'Twelveness' by Crowded Kitchen Players is absorbing

Dave Howell, reviewer

June 2017

Arnold Schoenberg and George Gershwin were frequent tennis partners shortly before the latter's death in 1937 at the age of 37. The two were an unlikely pair.

Gershwin wrote popular music, while Schoenberg (1874-1951) was a composer of classical music that was and still is highly respected, but was too unusual to be embraced by the public. However, the two admired each other’s work, and Gershwin helped Schoenberg emigrate to the U.S to escape the Nazis.

Their friendship is the basis of “Twelveness,” a play by Easton native and veteran composer/performer Charlie Barnett. Crowded Kitchen Players, with guest director George Miller, is presenting the play through June 19 at the Ice House in Bethlehem.

In “Twelveness,” Schoenberg, whose painstaking work was entirely intellectual, questions the value of the prolific Gershwin’s well-loved songs. The title refers to Schoenberg's predilection for the number 12, and his invention of a 12-tone composition method.

In Act 1, Scene 1, Schoenberg (Robert Salsburg) and Gershwin (Ryan MacNamara) are in a tennis match. Schoenberg has a stiff and formal manner, while Gershwin is an extrovert. They are joined by Ginger Rogers (Stephanie Gawlas Walsh). Initially, she and Gershwin are romantically involved, but by Act 2 (which takes place a few months later), they are only friends.

The play is unusual in that it is staged on both the first and second floors of the Ice House. The first act is on the ground floor, which represents the tennis court of Gershwin’s brother Ira. For scenes 2 and 3, the audience moves to the smaller balcony area that represents the formal dining room of the Schoenbergs. After the intermission, Act 2 resumes on the first floor/tennis court.

It also is unusual in that it is directed by Miller instead of Ara Barlieb, the Players’ usual director. But Barlieb is still involved in light, sound and set design.

Scene 2, which includes Schoenberg's wife Gertrud (Syd Stauffer), includes a more intense discussion about Schoenberg's belief that music created for dancing and enjoyment is not worthwhile. He goes so far as to exclaim that his audiences are unimportant, and only the music matters.

Gershwin laughs off much of Schoenberg's fanaticism, but becomes serious as he reveals his own neurological problems that soon will kill him. To prove a point, Rogers persuades Schoenberg to dance, which arouses feelings in him and makes him question his rigid beliefs.

The third scene is a monologue by Gertrud, in which she talks of her gradual independence as she assimilates into American life, and admits her attraction to Gershwin. There is no historical basis for this, but it is believable since Gertrud was about the same age as Gershwin and much younger than her husband.

We do not know just what these two couples were like in private life, but the four actors capture what we can assume to be their essence. Salsburg adopts a Teutonic seriousness that fits how the Austrian composer looks in photos. The real Gershwin may not have been as relaxed as MacNamara portrays him, but he is a good contrast to Salsburg and engages our sympathy as his health declines.

Walsh as Rogers is charming and intelligent enough to bring an emotional awakening to Schoenberg. And Stauffer delicately plays a woman who is tentatively breaking away from Old World constraints.

The play's biggest problem is repetition in some of its philosophical dialogue about music; its two-hour length could be edited down. But it is an absorbing character play about the nature of music and its creation.

“Twelveness,” 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday, The Ice House, 56 River Drive, Sand Island, Bethlehem. Tickets: $18; $14, seniors; $10, students. 610-395-7176, www.ckplayers.com.

Dave Howell is a freelance writer.