Piano Men

Arizona Theatre Company presents a merry melody.

As you sip your Martini, consider, for once, that cocktail pianist in the corner. You may think he's nothing but a low-rent Liberace noodling through glittering arrangements of Barry Manilow masterworks. But perhaps, as a kid, he had higher aspirations; he dreamed of storming Carnegie Hall, his fingers aflame with the music of Franz Liszt.

And what about those people lined up with you at the bar? How many of them suffered through years of elementary piano lessons, became just good enough to daydream about a music career, but soon realized their hands were better suited to data entry or brain surgery, and haven't touched the keyboard since?

Those are the people you'll see onstage at Arizona Theatre Company's season opener, 2 Pianos, 4 Hands. Actually, you'll see only two actor-pianists, but they stand in for the hundreds of thousands of us who once believed, at least for a month or two, that we could've been contenders in the classical-music ring.

More specifically, they're standing in for Ted Dykstra and Richard Greenblatt, two Canadian theater guys who wrote and originally starred in this show based loosely on their own experiences--and, apparently, those of about half the people in North America.

Following a snippet of a Bach concerto, the opening musical sequence encapsulates any child's first few years at the piano. A tentative, one-finger C-major scale gradually and awkwardly evolves into more assured passagework, wittily blossoming into a few bars of Heart and Soul, the ne plus ultra of many a 1970s teen pianist.

Ted Dykstra and Richard Greenblatt, having performed in 2 Pianos, 4 Hands around North America and Britain since the play's 1996 Toronto debut, have recently placed the show in four other hands. In ATC's production, the fleet fingers belong to Mark Anders (playing a character called Ted) and Carl J. Danielsen (as Rick).

The greatest challenge facing Anders and Danielsen is not merely portraying two boys who age from about 8 to 19, nor filling in as a host of adults--cruel or ineffective teachers, parents who initially insist on long half-hours of practice but are later horrified when their boys talk about going pro.

No, the greatest test of the actors' abilities is convincingly playing the piano badly.

They are, after all, supposed to be children, struggling through scales, clunkily phrasing one bar at a time, and eventually developing enough facility to confuse speed with expression. Add to this a couple of physical routines worthy of Victor Borge (presumably the work of director Bruce K. Sevy), and pianistic ineptitude has never been so entertaining.

Endlessly practicing beneath the glowering busts of Bach and Beethoven, Ted and Rick eventually realize, much to their surprise, that they love the piano. This happens, as it has for so many other kids, around the time they discover that although they're not yet great classical musicians, they can play pop tunes really well. The most joyous part of the 90-minute show is a brief romp through everything from Jerry Lee Lewis to Vangelis.

But then reality sets in, and, through an engaging piano-nerd rivalry, teens Ted and Rick must grapple more seriously with the likes of Chopin and Schubert, not to mention antagonistic professors at the local conservatory.

Dykstra and Greeblatt abandoned the piano when they hit 17, and it will give away no surprise to reveal that characters Ted and Rick do likewise. Most of us do, after all, much to our later chagrin. And 2 Pianos, 4 Hands is not so much about Ted and Rick as about all the rest of us.

In their effort to produce a work drawn from universal experience, Dykstra and Greenblatt have unfortunately drawn characters and situations that are rather generic. It's fun to nod your head through this show and think to yourself, "Yeah, that's exactly what it was like," but meanwhile you can't see Ted and Rick as individuals with some unique, surprising story to tell. The play makes a fun splash at the shallow end of the theatrical pool.

Similarly, while Anders and Danielsen do an excellent job of delineating one character from another, those individual characters all seem a bit too familiar. For example, Anders, when portraying Rick's father, seems to be not acting so much as doing a good Dan Aykroyd impersonation.

Still, at the end of the play, it's difficult not to take heart when Ted and Rick, now in their late 30s, get together to drink beer and listen to a Vladimir Horowitz recording of Liszt's Mephisto Waltz. Dismayed that they could never achieve a delicate effect that Horowitz produces so effortlessly, Ted and Rick nevertheless affirm that even if they're not the best pianists in the world, at least they're the best in the neighborhood.

And when they sit down to play Bach together joyously, it's a beautiful day in the neighborhood.

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