OLD WICKED SONGS, Apple Tree Theatre. One of the most reliable star-vehicle formulas pits a cantankerous elder (the star) against a young innocent (played by an up-and-comer) who ultimately thaws their relationship. Here Hill Street Blues regular Daniel J. Travanti plays a caustic, melancholy Austrian voice teacher who forges an unlikely friendship with a young American piano virtuoso (Tom Daugherty in an engagingly sympathetic turn) who’s lost the will to play. Set in 1986 against the backdrop of anti-Semitic Vienna during the presidential campaign of Kurt Waldheim, Jon Marans’s Old Wicked Songs explores the enduring influence of the Holocaust on two characters alienated from their histories.

Other than the deft use of Robert Schumann’s music, there are few surprises in this intelligent, well-crafted play, structured around a series of music lessons. The revelation here is Travanti, who spends his first few moments onstage clenching his fists, grinning manically, sniffing the air, and speaking in a garbled Austrian accent, then settles into the role and delivers a sparkling, nuanced performance. Giving the disconsolate, occasionally suicidal Josef Mashkan a richly detailed and idiosyncratic set of physical and vocal mannerisms, Travanti demonstrates without mawkishness or sentimentality that he’s precisely the sort of actor for whom plays like this are written.

–Adam Langer