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The Arts
June 21-27, 2006

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'2 Pianos, 4 Hands'

Photograph by Tim Fuller
Key Figures: Carl J. Danielsen and Mark Anders recall their pianistic upbringings in '2 Pianos, 4 Hands.'

The Piano Wars

Two aspiring musicians find their voices at San Jose Repertory Theatre

By Marianne Messina

THE NEW show at San Jose Repertory Theatre, 2 Pianos, 4 Hands, works as both a sketched-together story and a piano concert. Two topless grand pianos stretch languidly end to end on a stage setting made to look like a high-ceilinged home conservatory complete with chandelier and pedestal busts of the masters (scenic design by Scott Weldin). In a neat staging operation, one piano represents the living space of young Ted Dykstra (Mark Anders); the other, that of Richard Greenblatt (Carl J. Danielsen). And while each actor sits at his piano playing the young student, the other assumes the roles of various teachers and parental figures: Teddy's mother, as an aproned shadow puppet behind the huge arched doorway, Richard's cane-hunched Italian teacher, Scarlatti and so forth.

Scene changes run swiftly and for the most part smoothly, often with the help of a briefly darkened stage and an actor's quick dash from behind the piano. Occasionally, a scene, such as the quintessential generational argument between 15-year-old Ted and his father—"It's my life!" yells Ted. "Not yet it isn't," snaps his father—seems to want more transition time. Deciding that Ted is in danger of becoming "obsessed" with the piano, Dad threatens to cut off his financial patronage, and the scene ends with Ted in tears. Although Anders handles it well, the quick jump to a comedic role scuttles the poignant moment.

On one level, the terrain should be familiar to anyone who's taken piano lessons. Mom: "I don't hear you practicing!" Teacher: "You're too young to use the pedal." But it should also strike a familiar note with those who have devoted themselves to any pursuit and run aground of the authorities and specialists. The French piano teacher refers to the Italian piano teacher as a cochon (pig) for teaching one-handed arpeggios. "The piano is like a woman. When you make love to a woman, do you make love to her with only one hand?" The Italian teacher calls two-handed arpeggios "the crossover foo-foo ... with the diamond ring and the poodle." Later, the boys are introduced to the mutual snobbery between classical and jazz musicians and their combined disdain for popular music.

The play is wildly funny, avengingly so if you've ever pursued music seriously enough to experience the caricatured situations. This cathartic vindication has to be part of playwrights Ted Dykstra and Richard Greenblatt's intent as they wrote this loosely autobiographical document of their "musical careers" (up to the age of 17). In some ways, the more substantial story—what do these two really want in their heart of hearts?—is left out of the script, so we never know if they're "settling" or "accepting" at the end. Still, Anders and Danielsen play piano wonderfully, making the boys' growing love for their music contagious. The moments spent with Bach (especially the finale), Mozart and Beethoven truly feel like musical bonuses rather than diversions.

And to demonstrate that even virtuosos "goof off" at practice, we're treated to a humorous sequence of old movie theme songs backed by a lighting montage that overdramatizes the moods (lighting design, Don Darnutzer). During several dueling piano sequences ("4 hands") not only is the musical back-and-forth exciting, but the rivalry and shenanigans enacted in grimaces, stuck-out tongues and, in one duet, tricky stage-biz with a piano bench are at once impressive and hilarious. As a result, 2 Pianos, 4 Hands remains light and strangely inspiring, in spite of the fact that at every turn it reminds us that the world isn't really set up for excellence, much less devotion; nor is education set up for "finding your voice."

2 Pianos, 4 Hands, a San Jose Repertory Theatre production, plays Tuesday (June 27 only) at 8pm, Wednesday-Friday at 8pm, Saturday at 3 and 8pm and Sunday at 2 and 7pm through July 9 at the Rep, 101 Paseo de San Antonio, San Jose. Tickets are $22-$55. (408.367.7255)

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