Drastically streamlined or even retooled as a monologue, Julia Cho’s downbeat drama about a retired music teacher who reaches out to her old pupils in an attempt to find out why they deserted her might get auds thinking about the fantasies people spin to keep hard truths at bay. But the single thoughtfully dramatic moment in “The Piano Teacher” comes so late in the game — and so far out of left field — that it causes more confusion than clarification about its high-minded theme about the moral blindness of a self-deluded society.
Were it not for a riveting perf from Elizabeth Franz and a brief but electrically sparked appearance from debuting thesp John Boyd, this arty exercise (commissioned and first produced by South Coast Rep) might be written off for sheer self-indulgence. While neither can save it, Franz makes it watchable and Boyd makes it almost exciting.
As Mrs. K, the once-beloved piano teacher of countless schoolchildren who have long forgotten she ever existed, Franz projects the eerie radiance of someone half out of her mind with loneliness. Rattling around in her gloomy tomb of a living room (Derek McLane) and in the drab duds (Ilona Somogyi) and Alice-in-Wonderland hairdo (Charles G. LaPointe) of someone who hasn’t looked a clock in the face for years, the pitiful old thing nibbles on cookies and natters on about nothing.
Being totally cut off from the world, this eccentric recluse has no conversation and no context to her life. But for 36 years, she did have a husband, the long-deceased Mr. K, and she speaks of him often, fondly recalling his love of Shakespeare and his skill at crossword puzzles. And when she finally makes contact with one former pupil named Mary Fields (sweetly played by Carmen M. Herlihy), she fairly begs this kindly soul to say something nice about the old boy.
After such a long, drawn-out, endlessly repetitive buildup, the audience would be delighted to hear Mary reveal that mild-mannered Mr. K. was a pedophile, if not a vampire or ax-murderer. But no such luck.
It’s not until a mysterious young man named Michael (Boyd) visits the house, very late in the proceedings, that scribe gets to the point — which, of course, cannot be revealed here because it resolves the mystery of why Mrs. K. gets so anxious whenever something less than flattering is said about Mr. K.
The frustrating thing about this revelation is that it is, indeed, quite interesting — and suggestive of all sorts of scenes that might have been written to develop it dramatically, had Cho been so inclined.
But while the scribe has provocative ideas and impressive skills at writing intelligent dialogue, here she seems to have no feel for drama, and helmer Kate Whoriskey can’t disguise this. Speeches drone on until they drop off. Scenes play themselves out without leading inexorably to the scenes that follow. And just when she manages to write an exciting exchange between characters, wouldn’t you know it — the play’s over.