Saturday, December 31, 2011

Hitting some wrong notes

It's mystifying, sometimes, when one sees a show that's been running for a long time, is a popular favorite and one's reaction is "hmm, where's the beef?" I had that reaction at the Canadian show 2 Pianos 4 Hands, which recently played its umpteenth engagement in Toronto.

In this case, it's literally a two-hander, written and performed by Ted Dykstra and Richard Greenblatt, this time at the Panasonic Theatre, about their piano careers -- or rather, the piano careers that never quite got going. Originally produced in 1996, it has, according to the program, played in 10 countries and 200 cities. Since I studied piano for ten years as a young person, then returned to it in 2005 as an adult and continue to play today, I was eager to catch up.

Growing up in the U.S., I had never encountered the Royal Conservatory exams, but as an adult living in Canada, I decided to go through them and am now aiming at level 6. In the 22 years I spent in Toronto, it seemed that 2 Pianos, 4 Hands was perennially playing somewhere. So I was primed for fun. 

There is a simple set -- two grand pianos, nose to nose, and a backdrop that consists of two video screens enclosed by huge picture frames. The first disappointment was that Dykstra and Greenblatt, who also are credited as directors for this production, made relatively little, unimaginative use of those video screens -- window panes to denote a house, etc, but the screens sat blank for much of the show.

They play all the characters, from themselves as kids going through the usual practice agony and lessons ("it sounded better at home" - who hasn't said that?) to teachers and examiners.  

As kids, the two do not seem to be especially talented piano students, which I found a wee bit puzzling as the adults onstage possessed serious piano chops. Their teachers -- especially Sister Loyola -- run the gamut from encouragement to exasperation. The boys persist and enter the Kiwanis Music Festival, a venerable Canadian institution that encompasses local, regional and national competitions. (Canadians love competitive festivals. They exist for music, choirs, community theater -- and auto repair, for all I know -- and more can be found about this national characteristic here.)

The funniest character, for me, was Ed, a long-suffering emcee at the Kiwanis festival who announces in a dead tone that "67 children will all be playing the same piece."

As they progress in their musical studies, they try to take the next step. Dykstra applies to the Royal Conservatory and Greenblatt to a jazz faculty -- but they slam against reality. Dykstra has gotten by on an easy facility at the keyboard, but the conservatory interviewer sees through his facade and bluntly tells him he'd have to work a lot harder to be top-notch. Greenblatt's version of jazz smacks too much of classical training, and his interviewer basically tells him he just doesn't have the soul for it.

Greenblatt gets work in a piano bar ... Dykstra does some teaching ... and the continuation of their story, as one can read from their program bios, is that both went on to busy, full lives as well-known theater artists -- acting (in some roles demanding musical talent), directing, writing, mentoring.

But the acting on display in 2 Pianos, 4 Hands is more of the hammy variety (see photo), with a little Victor Borge-style kidding around at the beginning. And one small question: how the heck could two musicians misspell the names of Richard Rodgers and Edvard Grieg in the music credits for the show?

Richard Greenblatt and Ted Dykstra in 2 Pianos 4 Hands
The show consists of a series of vignettes, but there isn't much character development and there are such hoary jokes as the teacher with the foreign accent mispronouncing English words - the same word, several times.

One of the few negative reviews the show has gotten came from the New York Times in 1997, when it played the Promenade Theatre in New York. Acknowledging their skill, reviewer Peter Marks sharply noted that "they never make it clear what the music has meant to them," so it's hard to feel much when they lose their dreams of becoming concert artists. The full review is here

I kept waiting for the play to catch fire, to scale the heights of musical joy, to give me some insight into the despair of being found wanting at the very thing you desire so much (a feeling with which I am all too acquainted when it comes to music). But what I saw was two pleasant guys with a very enjoyable amount of piano talent reminiscing about their young years in music and ending the show with what I thought was a boring arrangement of Bach's lovely Sheep May Safely Graze. I was under-whelmed.

Friday, December 2, 2011

A "Signature" identity

I've seldom been as inspired by sheer artistic passion as I was on Dec. 1, having lunch on a bare plywood stage, looking out at an auditorium stacked high with cardboard boxes, at what in two months will be 20-year-old Signature Theatre Company's new home on West 42nd Street.

Lunch on the stage in the soon-to-be-finished End Stage Theatre at Signature Theatre
It was a press preview of a $66 million complex designed by Frank Gehry that will include - deep breath - three auditorium theaters, a studio theater, a rehearsal studio, administrative offices, a bookstore and a cafe. 

All this will be in service to those of us who make sense of the world through words spoken in a big dark room, who inhabit a neighborhood of voices and walk just one block from crazy, who approach the work half-crippled with fear and electrified by arrogance, in equal measure. "Theater begins with the written word," Signature's founding artistic director, Jim Houghton, told us.

The entire complex, he said, will support Signature's dedication to the playwright -- seasons that focus on the early and current work of a single writer who is in residence and engaged in the creative process and five-year residencies for several playwrights that focus on new work."Every square inch of this place is tied to mission," he said.

The opening is scheduled for February 2012, kicking off a season of work by Athol Fugard, Edward Albee, Katori Hall, Will Eno and Kenneth Lonergan.

Playwright John Guare talked about Signature's artistic legacy. "Signature revived the career of Horton Foote. It restored Edward Albee to his rightful place of prominence in the American theater," he said, adding that Tennessee Williams, in the last 20 years of his life "had no base, no home" to nurture his creativity. "Signature is so unfashionable" in producing a range of a playwright's work, he said. "Usually you are as good as your last play," he added.    

Architect Frank Gehry: "With all the insanity going on in the world, it's nice to be involved with sanity."
Gehry, whose design includes a dramatic canopy at street level and a lobby that will serve as a crossroads for the center, praised real estate developers the Related Companies, whose 63-story apartment/hotel tower houses the Signature Center. He also mentioned the City of New York, which contributed an astonishing $27.5 million to the project. Signature Executive Director Erika Mallin, who has shepherded the project since she arrived in 2007, has worked in the mayor's office.

A rendering of the Signature Theater lobby, next to the tools and materials that will make it happen.
Among the dramatic initiatives at Signature is its Access Ticket program, which will make tickets available at every performance for $25. This can't happen without the generosity of donors and among the major gifts announced were $5 million from John and Amy Griffin to name one of the theaters after John's mother, theater writer Alice Griffin; a $5 million gift from writer Margot Adams that will name the main theater after Signature founding playwright Romulus Linney and $3 million from Barry Diller and Diane von Furstenberg to name the lobby grand staircase.

In keeping with the spirit of the ticket initiative, which seeks to answer the question of actor and board member Edward Norton - " Is theatre for all of us, or is it just for the very few?" - I'd like to make a suggestion about the bookstore. 

I am as passionate about books as I am about theater, and about theater education. Signature said its bookstore will carry playscripts and books about the worlds portrayed onstage -- apartheid during the run of an Athol Fugard play, for instance. If tickets are $25, then why couldn't every book in the bookstore be available for $5? Why should a person who has spent $25 to see a play be stalled by the $25 price of a book or the $15 price of a playscript? But who would subsidize the Book Access initiative? Possibly individuals who feel as strongly about the written word as I do - or perhaps foundations that have literacy as part of their mandate.

Signature Theatre -- is it worth a thought?