The art of understatement is at the heart of why 2 Pianos 4 Hands, Laguna Playhouse's current offering, is such a brilliant production. When Canadians Ted Dykstra and Richard Greenblatt first created this autobiographical and unassumingly titled musical comedy in 1993, they started small, putting together little more than a brief sketch about two classically trained pianists confronting their musical limitations and their failure to become professional concert pianists.
When Dykstra and Greenblatt saw that their story engaged audiences, they workshopped and co-directed it into the cabaret-like production now playing at Laguna Playhouse. (It has already played in more than 150 theaters worldwide.) Of course, when I sat down to a play about failure with a—face it—boring title and saw two pianos and little else onstage, my expectations were quite low. But low expectations, my friends, are the foundation of artful understatement. If you are expecting to be bored but are met with sincerity and virtuosity on every level, as I was Saturday night, then the show's understated image is a huge part of why it works as brilliantly as it does.
The four hands playing the two Yamaha grand pianos (positioned almost end-to-end onstage) belong to actors Richard Carsey (Richard) and Tom Frey (Ted), who performed the show opposite each other at the Actor's Theater of Louisville and most recently at Hartford Stage in Connecticut. Carsey and Frey chronicle the uncannily parallel lives of Dykstra and Greenblatt from their introduction to common time to recognizing that nasty major minor seventh chord. From Bach to Billy Joel and Grieg to Guaraldi, Carsey and Frey prove they are equal parts actor and pianist.
Not only do Carsey and Frey confidently develop their primary characters from boys to men, they also portray key figures in the boys' lives throughout the show. Carsey displays his magnificent acting range, playing both a dopey child and the sternest of music conservatory administrators; however, it is Frey's performance that will astound you. Frey consistently avoids clichés and develops each one of his characters down to the most minute physical and vocal details without upsetting the focus of the scene.
What further amazed me is that these two performers take on more than 20 different characters in under two hours with their only costume change being the addition or subtraction of a tuxedo coat. Their only props are a cordless telephone and a handful of music books.
The economical and gorgeously lit set, designed by Steve Lucas, has only two pianos, two piano benches and two huge gilded picture frames suspended side by side upstage against the drawn stage curtains. Throughout the performance, these scrim-filled frames form a backdrop to brilliant washes of colored light, evocative shapes (windowpanes, wispy clouds) and even dramatic shadow puppets.
All these elements converge as the show comes to a heartbreaking close. We watch as thirtysomethings Ted and Richard put away more than a few Labatt Blues (the Canadian Budweiser) and lament their lost dreams of concert-pianist greatness while listening, entranced, to a recording of Vladimir Horowitz playing Liszt's Mephisto Waltz at Carnegie Hall. "If you're not going to play like that, then what's the point?" Ted solemnly says when the waltz ends.
His statement has a tragic tinge, but I didn't feel badly for Ted and Richard for long: if their dreams hadn't failed them, there wouldn't be a story like 2 Pianos 4 Hands to tell. Because of their failures, our world is a little bit brighter.