Monday, November 26, 2007

The Piano Teacher

This is a disturbing play. I say that as a warning, not an advisement not to go. Playwright Julia Cho begins by creating what seems like a story of Mrs. K, a friendly but lonely retired piano teacher, but in time chillingly reveals the darkness that Mrs. K has been trying to ignore for 36 years.

Elizabeth Franz is wonderful as Mrs. K, which is no surprise. When is Elizabeth Franz not wonderful? I last saw her in her Tony-winning performance as Linda Loman in “Death of a Salesman” opposite Brian Dennehy. In this play she breaks the fourth wall right from the start, addressing the audience as if we were her guests, even leaving the stage with a plate of cookies to offer people in the first rows. She chattily shares how she came to be a piano teacher and other details of her life and marriage. Soon, though, her sunny way fades and we see her loneliness, prompting her to call her former students to ask them to visit. The visits, however, will not be jolly. The students know the secret Mrs. K has been repressing and they want to confront her with it.

Unfortunately not all of the acting contributes to the unraveling. I won’t name the actress who plays Mary Fields, the first of the students to arrive, because I have nothing good to say about her performance. It’s as if someone from the audience had been given the script and asked on the spur of the moment to get up and read the part. She showed no connection to the character, to Mrs. K or the space. I don’t know what director Kate Whoriskey was thinking in keeping this woman in the cast.

John Boyd (in photo with Franz) does a better job as Michael, the other student, although he falls into overacting after awhile.

The set, by Derek McLane, adds to the dark atmosphere. The wallpaper is a dreary gray print, paper that might have been stately decades ago but is now depressing. A lone armchair sits in front of a small TV where Mrs. K spends her days. The piano is at back, covered in part by a printed cloth, but clearly no longer a major player in the life of this house. David Weiner’s lighting is effectively dim.

I feel about his play the way I felt about “Blackbird” (May 6 posting). It’s not a pleasant play, but dramatically it’s arresting, and Franz is unforgettable.

“The Piano Teacher” has been extended for two weeks at the VINEYARD THEATRE, playing until Dec. 23. Visit

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