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‘One Discordant Violin’ Review: In Search of Soul-Stirring Art

A particular strain of moody romanticism pervades “One Discordant Violin,” a monologue with music adapted by Anthony Black from a jejune short story that Yann Martel (“Life of Pi”) wrote in his 20s. A play about the life-sustaining power of art-making and the soul-extinguishing peril of selling out, it valorizes suffering in the pursuit of greatness.

The show itself, though handsomely designed, is a wan affair, presented by the Canadian troupe 2B Theater Company at 59E59 Theaters. Light, shadow, music, sound, voice — these are the vivid elements of a production with a less than scintillating tale to tell.

The narrator, portrayed by Black, is the kind of guy who will go on at length about Joseph Conrad’s semicolon usage. He is struck to the core by an encounter with an alcoholic janitor who is also a brilliant, unrecognized composer. Or so the narrator judges him to be; he knows nothing about music.

In the short story, the narrator is 25, relating a recent episode set in 1988. In the play, directed by Ann-Marie Kerr and Black, he is somewhere in mild middle age, looking back on a visit he made to Washington, D.C., in August 2001.

It is there, at a concert of amateur musicians who are Vietnam War veterans, that this aimless Canadian hears the janitor’s unfinished concerto, named for a fellow soldier. The experience stirs his soul.

If only the play had the same power. But Martel’s extravagantly titled story — “The Time I Heard the Private Donald J. Rankin String Concerto With One Discordant Violin, by the American Composer John Morton” — doesn’t have it either.

The most arresting interlude occurs after the concert, when the narrator follows the janitor to his night job, cleaning a bank. There they get to talking, and the janitor shows him his favorite part of his routine: opening the female employees’ desk drawers, looking for tampons stashed there.

“These things are the only sign of life in this place,” the janitor says, taking one out. “I see one of them and I think, ‘Blood . . . sex . . . children . . . love.’ Everything else here is dead.”

What he’s doing is intensely creepy, a skin-crawling invasion of privacy, but Black and Martel both treat his observation as if it’s profound.

Though Martel’s story is largely underwhelming, it’s easy to grasp the visual and aural appeal of adapting it for performance.

There’s the tumbledown ruin of the theater where the concert takes place, simply and strikingly rendered onstage. (The set is by Black, the lighting by Nick Bottomley and Anna Shepard, the projections by Bottomley.)

There’s the capacious potential of the music, given an original score by Aaron Collier and Jacques Mindreau. With Mindreau on violin, augmented by Collier’s live sound design, it imbues the show with a meditativeness that the text means to but does not supply. (Collier is also the music director.)

The play touches superficially on war and empire, capitalism and corruption; Donald Trump is mentioned, awkwardly.

But its true concern is dedication to art — the fear of wasting talent, and the corrosive idea that it would be worth “all the addiction, the loneliness and depression in the world” to create one exquisite work.

“It was a young man’s thought,” the narrator says, dismissively.

You get the feeling, though, that part of him believes it anyway.

One Discordant Violin

Through Nov. 24 at 59E59 Theaters, Manhattan; 646-892-7999, 59e59.org. Running time: 1 hour 10 minutes.

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