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A CurtainUp Review
The Piano Teacher
By Elyse Sommer
While Mrs. K never fulfilled her first dream of becoming a concert pianist, the superb Elizabeth Franz, whose portrayal of Linda Loman in Death of a Saleman won her a well-deserved Tony, handles this demanding role like the virtuoso. She charms us with her unassuming little old lady persona, breaks the fourth wall to share a plate of cookies with the first row audience members, and gradually reveals the darker implications of her abbreviated name (think K as in Kafka) and her mention of a recital that that the students "trainwrecked."
There are two supporting actors who handle the smaller but important parts of former students Mary Fields (Camen M. Herlihy) and Michael (John Boyd), as well as cameos of various unnamed others. However, this is essentially a one-person play, with only the central character, the retired piano teacher, always on stage.
The play begins and ends with Franz sitting in the one comfortable chair in the living room that's astutely furnished by Derek McLane to reflect both the the cozy-comfort aspects of this anywhere USA suburban house and the more disturbing aspects of what went on in that house during Mrs. K's long marriage and career as a piano teacher. There are tons of books, but they're stacked up as if someone is moving in or out rather than arranged in bookcases. The grand, but not too grand, piano is covered with reminders of the music lessons such as a metronome and little statues of Beethoven, Brahms and Mozart, but there are no paintings or posters or family photographs on the walls.
Without giving away too much of the plot, by the time we meet Mrs. K her marriage and piano teaching are all past history. Mr. K, as anticipated by several mentions of the substantial age difference, is dead and his widow is frail and apparently just getting by financially. The cookies and chocolates that have been a lifelong self-indulgence now seem to be the mainstay of her diet.
Lonely, and with little to do except watch television, it's natural for Mrs. K to let her mind wander back over her life addressing us as if we were the visitors she yearns for. When she comes across a notebook with a list of her many former students she gives in to an impulse to call them to see what they're doing—and perhaps to have these calls bring some of them back into her lonely life. But this being something of a mystery, there's another reason for those calls which has more than a little to do with that previously mentioned "trainwrecked" recital.
Kate Whoriskey, who directed the debut production at California's South Coast Repertory which commissioned the play, has staged the calls to the students quite smartly. She has Mary Fields (a warm and very sensitive Herlihy) first appear at the side of the stage, pleased and just a bit overwhelmed to be talking to her former teacher. This paves the way for numerous more fleeting calls to be handled by Herlihy and Boyd in telephone booth-like spaces at either side of the stage. Mary Fields actually follows up on Mrs. K's invitation to drop by but the only other response to Mrs. K's calls are some annoying and scary calls from someone who refuses to speak when Mrs. K answers the phone. Not surprisingly, that anonymous caller materializes as another caller— Michael, Mrs. K's one-time star pupil (Boyd, impressive in this difficult support role), who initially came to Mrs. K after hearing a song he'd heard on TV. That song turned out to be a McDonald's commercial set to the tune of Beethoven's "Für Elise." Though Mrs. K thought that the song's use for a commercial — represented "a new low for Beethoven" she was excited and impressed that Michael could play it perfectly.
Much as Franz's Mrs. K is the play's cynosure, it is the never seen but much talked about dead husband who defines the play's r'aison d'être. Mr. K, as we're told from the start, came to America from an unnamed foreign country whose citizens suffered through horrible atrocities (given that he would be in his eighties, he undoubtedly came from a country invaded by the Nazis). He is a stand-in for many survivors of unspeakable crimes against humanity whose memories often hang on to them like a contagious disease that can spread to others in various ways: as a compelling emotional draw for romantics like Mrs. K and as an upsetting real life Grimm's fairy tale for impressionable children.
There's a lot of high drama in unraveling Mrs. K's self-delusion about her life and the reason she's lost all contact with her students but it's all excessively low key. The most dramatic scene suffers from being somewhat far-fetched and too ambiguous. There's also a more or less out of left field moment when Mrs. K's refers to the town's apparent mistrust of her husband, turning it into an accusation of racism.
While, not as all-around satisfying as Durango, which last fall had an all too brief run at the Public Theater, The Piano Teacher is clearly the work of a playwright to whom, to quote Franz's famous Linda Loman line, "attention must be paid." And, of course, there's the pleasure of being able to pay attention to Franz in an intimate space affording everyone in the audience a close-up view of her face and body languagel
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