Sunday, December 02, 2007

PLAY: "The Piano Teacher"

Photo/Carol Rosegg

At first glance, Julia Cho's new play The Piano Teacher, seems to be a quaint solo show, the tale of an old woman, Mrs. K. (an electrifyingly frail Elizabeth Franz), who once was a piano teacher and now is alone. The mood is cozy, as evoked by Derek McLane's roomy and well-worn living room, and Kate Whoriskey's direction is neighborly and familiar: Mrs. K. opens the play, apologizing for her rudeness, by offering the entire front row some cookies. And yet, there's a sense of foreboding; something not quite right in the air (although that might just be the savvy theatergoer playing to the expectation of drama). When Mrs. K. picks up the phone and starts dialing her former students, just to talk with someone (the rest of the time, she "travels vicariously" by watching television), we feel that at last our expectations will be rewarded. But no, it's just another deceptively cordial conversation between teacher and former student, Mary Fields (Carmen M. Herlihy), a seemingly well-adjusted mother of two.

But then the phone rings. And no one answers her. The phone rings. Breathing on the other end. The phone rings, and she curses "motherfucker" at it, then apologizes, "You see what you made me say?" Silence. Here at last is that ominous something, with Hitchcockian menace, and suddenly her room looks more like a lion's den than a den, circled by lurking darkness, a darkness -- the savvy theatergoer suddenly notices -- that has been there all along. David Weiner's clever, subtle shifts -- a small flare on the ringing phone, a light accent to jar against a gentler reality -- that lighting has been the very thing threatening us since minute one.

As The Piano Teacher continues, Julia Cho uses a dramatic judo against us (like her peer Adam Bock), making us fear everything in the absence of familiar evil. When Mary Fields shows up at Mrs. K.'s doorstep, taking her up on that visit, we expect her to pull a knife. When she starts talking about Mr. K., and the time she used to spend doing the crossword with him before lessons, there's the fear that those happy memories are not what they expected. And when another ex-student, Michael (John Boyd) drops by a few hours later, we're waiting for him to take revenge for the molestation that surely went on behind Mrs. K.'s back. The real truth, as it often is, is far worse, so much so that when Michael starts to actually flip out, pulling the cord out of the wall, he loses his menace and becomes a caricature of madness -- this we expect; this we can deal with.

In the eerie final moments of the play, Kate Whoriskey gives us a glimpse into that unseen horror, but only a delicately suggestive one. A kitchen, and a man hidden behind a newspaper, and the lights rising higher and higher. Mrs. K. sits in her chair, picturing it, trying to tell the story she wants to remember, trying to say that all is "beautiful," but she can't. The words stick in her mouth, just like this image rests with the viewer, and with a slow succumbing to darkness, The Piano Teacher ends, pp.

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