The Piano Teacher
nytheatre.com review by Michael Criscuolo
November 17, 2007
The Piano Teacher's primary virtue—namely, its refusal to settle for the obvious—is also its Achilles' heel. Playwright Julia Cho's story about the elderly title character re-connecting with two former pupils goes for the jugular in its examination of the dark heart beneath idyllic suburban life. But, the author goes so far in her quest for the unexpected that she undermines some of the power her play builds up along the way. Despite effective work from both its director and stars, The Piano Teacher leaves too many questions unanswered.
The title character, Mrs. K., has long since retired from teaching at the start of the play. She is a lonely widow who passes the time eating cookies and watching Dancing with the Stars. Her husband, who claimed to hate children, used to entertain her pupils in the kitchen with crossword puzzles before or after their lessons. Her client list boasted second-rate students who had neither the talent nor the discipline to be true piano virtuosos.
One day she stumbles across an old contact sheet for her former students and, in a fit of nostalgia, starts calling them. Eventually, two of them drop by for a visit: sweet-natured Mary, whom Mrs. K. adored; and Michael, a talented but disturbed young man who may have been the only prodigy Mrs. K. ever taught. It's then that the kindly teacher finds out the truth about why these two—and maybe other students—really stopped taking lessons. At first, Mrs. K. suspects it had something to do with a long ago recital where her students infamously "trainwrecked" all over the place. But, she soon finds out it may have had something to do with her husband, Mr. K., and some potentially disturbing interactions with the kids.
Now, I know what you're thinking about Mr. K., because I was thinking the same thing. But, whatever one suspects about him, it turns out to not be the case. That's where The Piano Teacher runs into trouble. In an effort to avoid predictability Cho concocts a scenario just unlikely enough to defuse the play's credibility. After a gripping and mysterious build-up, the payoff of the final revelation about Mr. K. is disappointingly anti-climactic. (It would, however, be bad form for me to say what it actually is.)
Also, if the allegations about Mr. K. are true—and allegedly more than a few students knew about them—then why hasn't Mrs. K. heard about them before? Didn't the students tell anyone, like their parents? If the kids were as unsettled at the time as they say they were, it seems a little far-fetched that they kept it to themselves for who knows how long: a decade or two?
The Piano Teacher also feels a bit like two different plays. The first half is largely a solo show, performed with grace, dignity, and subtle power by Elizabeth Franz. She takes command of Mrs. K.'s history and makes it come alive as she recounts stories about her marriage, her teaching, and her students's horrendous recital. Once Mary and Michael appear, The Piano Teacher morphs into a multi-character play without a trace of self-consciousness. The change is a bit abrupt, but Franz, castmates John Boyd and Carmen M. Herlihy, and director Kate Whoriskey make it work through force of will. Personally, I think I would've preferred it if Cho had simply chosen one format and stuck to it.
Boyd and Herlihy do fine work, however, and Whoriskey does a nice job creating a feeling of menace that subtly builds throughout the production. Derek McLane's detailed living room set and David Weiner's moody lights add weight to the play's creepy portents.
For the most part, though, The Piano Teacher is carried by Franz's strong performance. Her crisp, specific work helps the play find its way through a hazy identity crisis and some wrong turns.