Review: ‘Letters From Lehrer’

It sounded like a promising idea. Pianist-actor-writer Richard Greenblatt, best known as co-creator of popular play "Two Pianos, Four Hands," was a longtime fan of Tom Lehrer. He struck up a correspondence with the reclusive satirical songster in 2002 and decided to combine those letters with a retrospective of Lehrer's life and works in a one-man show.

It sounded like a promising idea. Pianist-actor-writer Richard Greenblatt, best known as co-creator of popular play “Two Pianos, Four Hands,” was a longtime fan of Tom Lehrer. He struck up a correspondence with the reclusive satirical songster in 2002 and decided to combine those letters with a retrospective of Lehrer’s life and works in a one-man show.

Along the way, however, something went drastically wrong. Greenblatt decided to concentrate on his personal political journey and made Lehrer’s far more interesting voice a contrapuntal note rather than the main theme. The result is a soggy piece of confessional theater, only partially enlivened by Lehrer’s brilliant wit.

Lehrer was a Harvard mathematician who acquired a cult following on the strength of three record albums he released between 1953 and 1965. He toured sporadically during those years, but hasn’t made a public appearance in well over 30 years. In fact, apart from some selections he penned for PBS kids show “The Electric Company” in the early ’70s, Lehrer’s satirical shaft hasn’t been fired in four decades.

The fact he still has a following is a tribute to his acid lyrics and bouncy tunes on topics ranging from Catholic liturgical reform (“The Vatican Rag”) to pornography (“Smut”).

Greenblatt is as skilled a pianist as Lehrer, but his singing voice is a gruffly muffled growl, rather than Lehrer’s crisp articulation. Consequently, the songs don’t land the way they ought to. Greenblatt performs 19 of them, but at least half of those are only fragments. People who come expecting to hear a full show of Lehrer’s songs will be disappointed.

The best part of the evening is Greenblatt pretending to be the spoken Lehrer, dispensing his mordant bon mots with aplomb. But there’s too little of that, with most of the show devoted to learning about what could best be called “The Un-Greening of Greenblatt.”

We find out Greenblatt’s parents were Communists and he was a “red-diaper” baby, growing up in an atmosphere of political awareness in Montreal. He narrates how he has fought to maintain his political edge over the years, but now, in middle age, wonders if it’s all worth it and whether he should abandon the cause.

The show weaves together the triple threads of Greenblatt’s life, Lehrer’s career and a cringingly simplistic overview of the political scene of the past 50 years. There’s a ham-fisted use of historical projections, which provide the only visual relief, as the rest of the show is a grand piano on a bare stage with minimal lighting.

Neither director Ross Manson nor the play development program at CanStage have done Greenblatt any favors by allowing him to expose his ego in so blatant a fashion. “Two Pianos, Four Hands” worked because it used Greenblatt’s youthful struggles with the piano as a metaphor for anyone who ever strived for something, only to fall short of their ultimate goal.

This time around, there’s no metaphor; consequently, Greenblatt’s political angst quickly becomes tiring.

Lehrer, however, remains a consummately witty man, although he might revise one of his epigrams (“Self-indulgence is better than no indulgence at all”) after seeing this show.

Letters From Lehrer

Canstage Berkeley Street Theater, Toronto; 200 Seats; C$51 ($44) Top

Production

A CanStage presentation of a play in one act by Richard Greenblatt with songs by Tom Lehrer. Directed by Ross Manson. Design, Glenn Davidson. Opened, reviewed Jan. 19, 2006. Running time: 1 HOUR, 30 MIN.

Cast

With: Richard Greenblatt
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