Summoning a range of music from Bach to Billy Joel, the creators of "Two Pianos, Four Hands" relive their tempestuous, lifelong love affairs with the ivories, musical obsessions that grow from childhood frustration to, well, middle-age frustration. Broadly comic and sincerely performed, "Pianos" ultimately has too few emotional notes in its repertoire. Created and performed by Canadians Ted Dykstra and Richard Greenblatt, "Pianos" has been something of a minor-key phenomenon up north, winning awards and playing popular runs at 12 theaters from May 1996 to September 1997. Director Gloria Muzio smoothes out some scene transitions but doesn't seem to have done much editing: Growing from a 25-minute piece in '94 to a subsequent 90-minute workshop, the show now stands at two hours and 15 minutes, a length that might leave American audiences as fidgety as a kid with a metronome.
Dressed in tuxedoes and seated at their pianos, the two men portray themselves and various teachers and parents in episodes recounting the near-fanatical dedication and sacrifice required for a concert career. From boys who would rather be playing hockey to teenagers heartbroken at realizing the limits of their talents, Dykstra and Greenblatt comically recall years of red-faced, never-quite-good-enough attempts to make their fingers do the impossible.
Despite the heartfelt nature of this semi-autobiographical journey, the performers rely too much on familiar caricatures — the elderly, impatient teachers, stern parents, nervous kids — to bring much depth to their personal histories. The first act, in particular, strikes the same chords repeatedly as Dykstra and Greenblatt, as children, struggle with boredom and frustration as they scale (literally) the complexities of the instrument.
Though the second act, stretching about an hour and 15 minutes, is too long, it is more varied than the first half, as the skits move away from childhood music traumas. The Dykstra and Greenblatt characters head off to music conservatories, endure heckling in piano bars and teach housewife dilettantes as they endeavor to establish their lives in music. As the show winds down, the two men come to grips with the boundaries of their abilities, forced to concede that practice doesn’t always make perfect.
As writers, Dykstra and Greenblatt can be clever, but their dialogue leaves little to subtext: “I feel guilty when I’m not practicing, I feel inadequate when I do,” laments one of the two, or, as a teacher berates a student for playing rock ‘n’ roll, “That kind of fooling around is not allowed anywhere in this conservatory!” The duo’s acting style is equally blatant, occasionally funny in a sketch-revue way but, given the long stretches where they act as children, just as often grating.
If, as the performers assert, their talents fall short of the concert-pianist level, the musical deficiencies won’t be apparent to most listeners. Fingering snippets of more than 20 musical pieces (mostly classical, with “Heart and Soul,” “My Funny Valentine” and some other pop songs thrown in), Dykstra and Greenblatt play off each other with timing that’s as expert in musicality as it is in comic effect.
Their sense of timing lets them down in one crucial area, though. “Two Pianos, Four Hands” is at least a third longer than it needs to be, an embellishment that years of discipline should have precluded. C’mon guys, don’t take it out on us.