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Paulanne Simmons

"The Piano Teacher": Three Characters in Search of a Better Ending

"The Piano Teacher"
Directed by Kate Whoriskey
Vineyard Theatre
108 East 15th St.
Opened Nov. 18, 2007
Tues. 7 p.m., Wed. thru Sat. 8 p.m., Sat. & Sun. matinees 3 p.m.
No performance on Nov. 22
$55 (212) 353- 0303
Closes Dec. 9, 2007
Reviewed by Paulanne Simmons Nov. 17, 2007

Mrs. K, the title character in Julia Cho's new play, "The Piano Teacher," is an aging widow who lives in a fussy, old-fashioned house with her old baby grand piano and her memories. She finds happiness in small things, like cookies or a piece of chocolate. She has a wry sense of humor. At times, particularly in her opening monologue, she exhibits considerable wisdom. "It's good to be good at small things," she says. "Because large things can be heartbreaking."

But there's something ominous lurking in Mrs. K's past, and Elizabeth Franz let's us know it so gently, so imperceptibly, that before we fully realize what's happening, we are enveloped in a feeling of dread while she munches cookies and reminisces over the many years she taught in that room by that piano which is no longer played.

Whatever is in Mrs. K's past seems to have something to do with the deceased Mr. K, a dark, brooding foreigner who came to the United States seeking refuge from a distant country known for its barbarism. Mrs. K loves him deeply despite his cynicism and morbidity. There's also something awful that happened to one of her most promising students, something so painful, the loquacious Mrs. K doesn't want to talk about it.

Under Kate Whoriskey's direction, "The Piano Teacher" is filled with riveting edge-of-your-seat suspense. The tension she creates is painfully palpable every time the phone rings or someone knocks on the door. Derek McLane's prosaic set, bathed in David Weiner's lighting, which takes the action from early in the day to the ominous night, is enormously helpful in setting this mood.

Eventually, Mrs. K is overwhelmed by her loneliness, and she begins calling up her former students. Two of those students, Michael (John Boyd) and Mary Fields (Carmen M. Herlihy), actually show up at her door. There are more ominous hints, and finally the great mystery is revealed.

Herlihy plays Mary Fields with dazzling and totally believable sweetness. Boyd grinds his teeth, snarls and leaps menacingly about Mrs. K's living room. But when we actually find out the awful truth, even the tremendous acting of Franz, Herlihy and Boyd cannot make the revealed secret live up to our expectations.

"The Piano Teacher" is like Hitchcock's "Psycho" without the shower scene or the dead mother. With no payoff, one is still waiting for more, even after the applause dies down.

It may well be that Cho's explanation of what went wrong in Mrs. K's world could actually happen in real life. But it doesn't make good drama. On stage we want something more.

When a show builds up to a catastrophic ending, we have a right to expect a catastrophe. Cho's play ends not with a bang but a whimper.


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