Wallace Shawn never got the “show, don’t tell” memo, but his lyrical memoir-like monologues (The Designated Mourner, My Dinner With Andre) prove him to be a gifted storyteller. That there are often other people in the scene is almost beside the point. Shawn’s intermittently charming curiosity The Music Teacher, co-created by his composer brother, Allen, tells much more than it shows, and yet doesn’t tell enough to pack a dramatic punch. Subtitled “a play/opera,” it resists pigeonholing on either side of the slash.
Smith (Mark Blum), a man as bland as his name, comes to terms with his mediocrity by reliving his past as a young instructor at a tony prep school. His obsession with a fawning student (played as an adult by Kellie Overbey) leads to collaborating with her on an opera that—as often happens with opera—becomes a vehicle for their tempestuous emotions. Like the monologues that bookend it, the sweetly awkward student production conveys little dramatic impact; most of the tension comes from Allen Shawn’s jangly harmonies. Tom Cairns, an accomplished opera director, seems more at ease in these scenes. The singers (unamplified, as is the band) rotate performances, but if the other soloists are anything like Sarah Wolfson, Jason Forbach, and Jeffrey Picón, they deserve to be heard in a larger venue. The evening, however, belongs to Blum, a nuanced study of dejection and sexual repression.