Here is a show that will capture the heart of anyone who ever spent long hours progressing with mind-numbing slowness through the pages of a Thompson piano primer; who ever collected faux-marble busts of the great classical composers; who ever tried to make sense of time signatures and major and minor keys and complex fingerings; who ever attempted to keep pace with a metronome; who ever failed to connect with the scrambled personality or foreign accent of their nerve-jangled piano teacher (a vocation that no doubt ranks second only to that of drivers' education instructor in the "worst jobs" category).

Here is a show that also will recapture time past for anyone who ever felt--if only for a few sublime minutes--that glorious sensation of artistic conquest when suddenly, as if by magic, all the little black-tailed notes and sharps and flats on a page of music conjoined with one's fingers and brain waves to create a satisfying sound, and the sense of unmatched exhilaration that comes with producing music.

"2 Pianos 4 Hands," now receiving a sensational production at Skokie's Northlight Theatre, charmingly captures the agony and ecstasy, the frustration and fetishism, the drudgery and mystery involved in learning to play the piano, and beyond that, rising to the level of accomplished musician. And unlike many other plays about music in which not a single note is actually performed live, the pair of protean actors who move through this mix of playful, instantly recognizable dramatic scenes frequently sit down to play everything from Bach, Beethoven, Mozart and snatches of Chopin, Rachmaninoff, Schumann and more, to that indestructible spirit-raiser of every neophyte pianist, "Heart and Soul."

The little miracle is that any pair but the show's creators and original performers--the Canadian-bred polymaths, Richard Greenblatt and Ted Dykstra--could carry it all off. However, it would be difficult to imagine a better coupling than Carl Danielsen and Jonathan Monro, who are phenomenal. (Their resumes reveal extensive conservatory training and musical performance experience as well as a formidable list of classical and popular acting credits.)

Danielsen and Monro hit the mark, whether negotiating the flips from sitcom-low comedy to intense drama, or sitting opposite each other--separated by the continental masses of two grand pianos--and together whipping off a climactic bravura account of the allegro movement of Bach's D Minor Concerto.
The play engagingly captures the fog of incomprehension that seems to linger for months and months--even years--as lessons continue, and practice seems like the most grinding, unrewarding form of slow torture. But it also suggests how this tedious repetition can sometimes lead to a moment when things begin to click, when the hands and mind begin to cooperate, and when making music starts to become not so much easy as a thrilling challenge, and one that can thrive on competitiveness.

Moving from childhood to preteen years to the advent of the hormonal rush, we watch as both young men (who flip from teacher to student with little more than a quick exit or entrance) decide they are going to be professionals.

In one crucial scene, Ted (Monro's character) races through Schubert's A-flat Impromptu at the audition to the conservatory he has dreamed of entering for years, and is dismissed with a withering assessment of his emotional and artistic immaturity. In another, Danielsen (who plays Richard), dabbles with a career change to jazz, and performs a hilarious riff on "My Funny Valentine" that contains every cliche a classical musician posing as a jazz "artiste" might adopt.

The gradual realization by both men that they don't have quite what it takes to be concert pianists at the very top of the international game is humbling and deeply painful. And it makes you realize just what sacrifice, talent, obsessiveness, grueling repetition and raw self-analysis go into the making of a top-drawer artist.

In the months before the millennium, a survey of prominent thinkers posed the question: What was humankind's greatest accomplishment of the past 2000 years? Only one man, Harvard educator Howard Gardner, answered "classical music." It was a perfect response.

And by the time "2 Pianos 4 Hands" draws to a blazing close, you are sure to agree--finding yourself with a new awe for both the genius behind the music itself, and for the musicians who continue to turn complex, two-dimensional notation into soaring, soul-elevating, three-dimensional waves of sound. Bravo!


WHEN: Through Jan. 12
WHERE: Northlight Theatre, 9501 Skokie Blvd., Skokie
TICKETS: $34-$46
CALL: (847) 673-6300