A winner of Houston's Preston Jones New Play Award for his earlier Child Child, Marans has musical roots as a lyricist for Broadway composers Charles Strouse and Galt McDermott, among others. (He also once served as a staff writer for the New Carol Burnett Show and as a script editor for actor Michael Douglas's Stonebridge production company.) Old Wicked Songs started to take off after Abramsohn ran across it at a play-reading series in Los Angeles. He handed it over to director Frank Ferrante -- who directs the Caldwell production -- and the pair collaborated to present its world premiere at Philadelphia's Walnut Street Theatre in 1995. Later that year, with a new director and cast, the show opened at Manhattan's Jewish Repertory Theatre and then moved uptown to off-Broadway's Promenade Theater for a well-received run.

A graduate of Oberlin College's Conservatory of Music, Abramsohn proves he can spot a work that shows off his musical talents -- but he is far more than just a musician who acts. Whether sinking into the couch while awkwardly searching for a polite way to contradict his elder or reeling around the stage astounded by having learned something he didn't already know, Abramsohn is totally believable as the isolated piano prodigy. He invests his character with a universal vulnerability that softens the cold genius's moods and engages us in his story.

As Josef, Knudson completely embodies the knowledgeable curmudgeon -- the type of person from whom we all can learn if only we could stand to be in the same room with him. An understated actor who creates a huge impact, Knudson portrays the perfect mentor, a man who cajoles, rebukes, and confounds in an effort to teach a student to think for himself. Knudson deftly depicts how Josef's desperate need for a paying gig outweighs his pride, creating a moving portrait of someone struggling to keep his dignity intact.

To his credit, director Ferrante, like a conductor, allows his players to follow the rhythm of Marans's work. And the Caldwell's first-rate design team provides expert accompaniment: Penny Koleos Williams's costumes underscore Stephen's progressive liberalization; Thomas Salzman's sensitive lighting supports the proceedings with an unobtrusive power; Tim Bennett's sturdy rehearsal hall looks authentic; and Steve Shapiro's cohesive sound design imperceptibly blends live piano from the stage with taped music. Despite its classical music underpinnings, Old Wicked Songs is closer in spirit to jazz, offering the delights of breathtaking performances within a defined but never explicit structure.

Old Wicked Songs. Written by Jon Marans; directed by Frank Ferrante; with Kurt Knudson and Roy Abramsohn. Through December 21. For more information call 930-6400 or see "Calendar Listings.

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