“2 Pianos 4 Hands” is a clever, insightful exploration into what it takes to become a successful classical pianist. For anyone who’s ever taken a music lesson or ever agonized over Adagio or been frustrated by Fortissimo, this play is delightfully relatable. The writers, Ted Dykstra and Richard Greenblatt, have taken their vast experience as classical musicians to create a comedy with music that is both wildly humorous and emotionally stirring.
“2 Pianos…” opens at Portland Stage Company on Friday, Jan. 28 and will run through Feb. 20. Tom Frey directs and also plays Dykstra, one of the two main characters. Frey is at ease on the stage and successfully portrays a myriad of hilarious characters in addition to Dykstra, from different piano teachers, to a random stumbling drunk.
Jeffrey Rockwell, playing opposite Frey, stars as Greenblatt, and although he has a tendency to overact in the part, he does a wonderful job engaging the audience through his portrayal. While the writing is tight and witty, sending the audience into regular peals of laughter, everything inevitably comes back to the music. Dykstra’s and Greenblatt’s struggles and triumphs are punctuated by bouts of Bach and Mozart. “2 Pianos…” is, as Artistic Director Anita Stewart puts it, “a concert interrupted by a play.”
The show opens with two elegant, gleaming grand pianos that take up the entire stage, facing one another. Behind them, four enormous gold pillars flank two wide with softly-glowing blue panels. Stewart’s set is visually stunning in all its simplicity. The effect mirrors the lives of Dykstra and Greenblatt, who despite differences, share many of the same experiences and maintain one defining similarity — a pure love for their craft. The two men charge out from the eaves in simple tuxedos. Susan Thomas, who designs regularly for Portland Stage, allows for the men and their music to do all the talking with sparse costume design.
Throughout the course of “2 Pianos…”, we witness these characters grow from bumbling children confused by quarter and eighth notes, into awkward, nerdy adolescents, then into their later teens, where each character begins the struggle to figure out what he will say through his instrument. We can sense increasing discouragement, and eventually, heartbreakingly, each man becomes weary and gives up.
In the final scene, the dejected middle aged Dykstra and Greenblatt are together, drinking beer and lamenting over what could have been. They are disheartened but slowly seem to reach peace in their decisions. They don their jackets, sit down at their respective pianos and begin to play. Even if one has never been seated behind a piano, he or she can likely relate to the difficulties associated with devoting oneself to any craft, and the regret born from abandoning it. This is a play about passion and regret, wondering what could have been and accepting what is.
The show closes with the same duet it opened with. The lights dim until it’s impossible to distinguish who is playing which part without keeping a keen eye on the hands of two men wrapped up in a beautifully cohesive, arresting duet.