THE PIANO is a marvel of design in both form and function. When paired with a performer of extraordinary talent, it's an amazing instrument to see and hear. Upon watching 2 Pianos, 4Hands at Studio Arena, one gains - or regains - a certain respect for the skill and discipline that the piano demands.

This humorous two-man show follows two piano students through the years-long gauntlet of music education. Robert Blaney and Tom Frey are excellent conveyors of that often amusing, yet undeniably difficult. Besides playing the representative roles of the play's writers, the two portray each other's instructors, parents and other characters encountered along the way. Along with clever voices, Blaney uses a fidgety physicality to translate various personalities. He's well matched with Frey, whose calmer, melancholy demeanor and delivery best express, the frustration in dealing with their instrument of choice.

2 Pianos 4 Hands illustrates accurately the commitment and complications students face when learning to master the piano. From the simplistic performance of Hoagy Carmichael's "Heart and Soul" ("Chopsticks") to the posture demands of tyrannical teachers to the final, fateful decision that every student must make, 2 Pianos, 4Hands has a very keen perception of the universal realities of music education.

This demonstrated with some very interesting piano playing that uses an accelerated evolution of skills as interpersonal competition. Dueling on two grand Boston Pianos, Blaney and Frey start one finger at a time with a one
octave scale, then alternate to a faster, full octaves scale, progressing to two octaves and performed with hands going in opposite directions. As the players go on to arpeggios, experienced pianists may recognize this progression as the path all students take as they ascend to higher levels.

This piano dialogue was particularly engaging and effective in keeping the show focused on the music. There were many nice nuances where one musician picked up a piece where the other left off as the scene shifted. Those unspoken moments made 2 Pianos 4 Hands a unique and clever theatrical experience.

Though the music was mostly classically inclined, a pop music exchange with some delightful touches was especially refreshing. Highlights include a Snoopy dance done with "Linus and Lucy" and a strobe light "run" with "Chariots of Fire." Much of the show's humor is creatively executed with some nice tricks of light and shadow. Another hat tip to lighting designer Brian Cavanagh

2 Pianos 4 Hands is also a handsome production with a simple, elegant set featuring the two Boston pianos facing each other. Ultimately, it is a heartfelt tale of talent and dedication, but it is delivered in a fun, well-paced package that is much more sweet than bitter. Topped off with some dynamic piano playing, 2 Pianos 4 Hands is an aural and visual treat for any audience. But if one has a history with the piano, it will be enjoyed on a whole different level.
Studio Arena (Buffalo, NY) is very fortunate to have Andy McKim here to direct 2 PIANOS 4 HANDS. Apart from its creators, no one knows this piece better than Andy does. He was a key player in the development of the piece and directed the original production. As Associate Artistic Director of Toronto's Tarragon Theatre, a theatre that specializes in developing new work, Andy is no stranger to the collaborative process of creating plays. I thought it might be interesting to find out more about that process, especially in relation to 2 PIANOS 4 HANDS.
Robert Rutland - First of all, we are really fortunate to have you here directing this production of 2 PIANOS 4 HANDS. You are Associate Artistic Director at Tarragon Theatre in Toronto, and you guys specialize in nurturing new projects. So my question is what was it like, collaborating with Ted Dykstra and Richard Greenblatt on this play? You were a part of its creation. What was that like? Were you sort of a co-creator or what?
Andy McKim - A catalyst.
RR- Ah!
AM - Yes. When Ted and Richard first met they were performing together in this odd, orchestral/dramatic piece about Mozart, and they discovered that they both had this history with the piano in their youth. They were struck by the similarities in their experiences with the piano, and they began to talk about writing a play together about two aspiring young pianists. By the time they parted company, the idea was not completely in the realm of 'just a dream,' but they had not begun to write the play. They had agreed that this was a fun idea and they would like to pursue it. That was it. Then, separately, they each told me the story about how they wanted to create this play together. I thought, 'Well, if two smart guys who are interesting actors want to explore a theatre piece about the piano, no matter what happens its going to be interesting. People are going to want to see this.' So I challenged them by saying, here's a tiny bit of money; here's a rehearsal space; and here's the deadline of an event where there is going to be an audience. I said, all you need to come up with is twenty minutes to present. So they found the time in their busy schedules and took the challenge.
RR - So did they go into this room you gave them alone, or were you with them from the start?
AM - No. They're process was that they would go into the room and talk about what things from their experience with learning the piano were of interest to dramatize. They would make a list and then they would improvise around these situations. And not just situations that had happened to them, but ideas and concepts, they would improvise. After the improvisation, they would go away and do some writing. Then they might come back and do some more improvisations. After they had worked this process for a little while, they would call me in. And I would look at it and give a response, as much from the perspective of an audience member as a director, because whatever they had come up with would be new to me. I came in 'cold,' which was an advantage. I would give them notes and they would go back into the process again. This continued until they had a presentation of about 20 minutes, and they performed that.
RR - And then what?
AM - Well, those who saw it loved it, so Tarragon Theatre and the guys made a commitment to keep working and expand the piece to 90 minutes. Working in the same way we just talked about, we accomplished that, and Tarragon scheduled three opportunities to present the piece to the public. By the third presentation, word of mouth was so big on this workshop thing that we had to remove a wall of the studio space and combine two rooms to accommodate everyone who wanted to see it.
RR - That must have told you something.
AM - Exactly. Tarragon then made a firm commitment to produce it. And the show was a big hit.
RR - Since then, Richard Greenblatt and Ted Dykstra have performed their play all over Canada, and the U.S and London. But now we've got something different happening. You, a catalyst for the original creation, are here in Buffalo working with two different actors. How is this process different?
AM - The difference is we're not working on the story. That's how I was a partner when the project got started. I was helping them to develop the story. That work is done, and now what we are trying to do is to tell the story as well as we can. SoÉit's more performance focused. And one very important thing about the performance of this show is that whoever the actors are that are playing Ted and Richard...
RR - Yes?
AM - ...we need to take advantage the strengths and charms of those two individuals.
RR - So that they can feel close to the material, and we, the audience, can feel close to them?
AM - Right.
RR - As an actor, I have experienced difficulty in performing roles that were developed through improvisation (like BEYOND THE FRINGE or A TUNA CHRISTMAS). It feels like the improvisational spark that the creators can sustain while performing their own stuff, is impossible to reproduce. Is that a problem with 2 PIANOS 4 HANDS? (Pause)
AM - If we have done a good job in creating this piece, I would hope that, basically, any good actor/musician could do the roles: that the play is not something tailor-made to a specific person's performance strengths and skills.
RR - I am digressing here a bit, but your comment about the strengths and charms of the individual actors makes me think of this. When I read 2 PIANOS 4 HANDS, I was struck by the pathos. I had not expected that and I wondered if I was just reading into the script. Having seen a rehearsal, I know that I was right. Is that part of what you mean by the importance of letting the charm of these actors as people really shine through, so the pathos emerges for us in the audience?
AM - I think so. Certainly, you are correct about the pathos being a part of the play. That was not accidental. That was always a part of the concept, to tell this really human story. Not just to create something clever or funny, but to use the idea of the piano and our youthful relationship to it as a metaphor for something universal and quite touching. I am proud of that, and, frankly, I believe that the pathos is what makes the play work and accounts for its success with audiences.
RR - Here, here! And on that 'note'...(did I say that?). Thank you. We are delighted to have you here in Buffalo. I look forward to visiting the Tarragon Theatre in Toronto. You are not that far away.
AM - Please do!