2 Pianos, 4 Hands Summons Up Universal Memories of Piano Lessons

REVIEW BY CARY GINELL

Not since Victor Borge’s one-man show, Comedy in Music has piano playing brought so much humor to Broadway. Ted Dykstra and Richard Greenblatt’s mixture of comedy and virtuosic piano playing won the Dora Award (the Canadian equivalent of the Tony) in 1995 and has since been performed on five continents. The show opened Off-Broadway in 1997 and ran for six months before transferring to the Kennedy Center in Washington. Dykstra and Greenblatt were the original performers; after their stint with the show ended, their characters’ names remained. In the current production of the play at the Rubicon Theatre Company, the two parts are being played by a pair of extraordinary performers, Thomas Frey as Ted and Christopher Tocco as Richard. 

The play traces the lives of two aspiring musicians over fifteen years of their lives, beginning when they were ten-year-olds taking beginning piano lessons. The actors switch roles frequently, with each adopting roles of various teachers as well as student. Anyone who has ever taken piano lessons and suffered through endless practicing of “Fur Elise” will have their memory jogged by phrases such as “curve your fingers!” “lower your wrists,” and “Is this a happy or a sad sound?” 

By the time the characters reach their teens, they are ready for their conservatory examination, which is the most frenetic and wildly entertaining part of an overwhelmingly rich show, during which teacher and student go through a rapid-fire Q&A of musical terms, while projected flames shoot up on the backdrop of the stage. 

In Act II, both characters reach their respective crossroads, where they have tired of playing classical music and want to move on to more popular styles, now that they have developed the proper skills. The dilemma faced by many failed musicians is that they are unwilling to work as hard as is needed to succeed in the competitive world of classical music, but their classical training makes them unfit to play in jazz groups. As Tocco says, as Richard, “I feel guilty when I’m not practicing and inadequate when I am.” As a result, one ends up teaching children at the ABC School of Music while the other fends off drunks, playing Billy Joel covers in bars. 

The theme of 2 Pianos 4 Hands is that those who choose to play music must find their own place in that world and that one doesn’t have to become a Van Cliburn or a Herbie Hancock to be successful. “Being the best in the neighborhood is OK,” they reason at the end of the play. “It screws us up when we think that music belongs only to the Horwitzes,” Frey explained in an after-show talkback session. 

2 Pianos 4 Hands is an extraordinary show in that in addition to being actors and comedians, performers must be extremely skilled musicians, as all the pieces in the show must be played on stage by the actors. The music performed ranges from complex works by Mozart, Beethoven and Liszt to pop and show tunes, with the culminating scene including a scintillating two-piano rendition of the first movement of Bach’s Concerto in D Minor. As a result of this difficult task, fewer than thirty people in the world have been skilled enough to be cast in the show. Both Frey and Tocco showcase exemplary skills as pianists. Speaking about preparation for the show, which begins months in advance of opening night, Tocco said that he developed a work ethic that makes any other show he has ever acted in a lot easier, because of the combined skills needed. 

2 Pianos 4 Hands provides not only magnificently performed music and versatile acting skills, it exorcises the demons within those of us who have always felt guilty about “the road not taken.” 

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ˆ2 Pianos 4 Hands continues through November 16 at the Rubicon Theatre Company. For dates and showtimes, see the VC On Stage Calendar. 

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