Paradoxical Play Illuminates, Somewhat, The Opaque And Arcane World Of Concert Music

For someone who dropped out of piano lessons after a single year of laziness and ineptitude, "2 Pianos 4 Hands" sometimes seems as arcane as a computer language or Sanskrit. The distinctions between diminished chords and sevenths and ninths, the talk of time signatures and mnemonic devices for remembering rules, make it clear that pianists belong to an alien species, separate and superior.

Yet if the two-man show that opened Wednesday at Hartford Stage as the second attraction of its Summerstage program proves daunting at times, it adds up to a performance of many colors. Richard Carsey and Tom Frey, its dueling keyboardists, come across as true renaissance men, masters of low comedy as well as digital dynamics. The musical drama by Ted Dykstra and Richard Greenblatt opens up a world that is at once familiar and Olympian. Learning an instrument seems difficult enough, but over the course of the play, a more painful moral emerges. Mastering the piano proves a sheer impossibility for most mortals, however talented.

Directed with wit, variety and growing poignancy by Greenblatt, "2 Pianos 4 Hands" opens with a dumb show, played out by two men in tails who take their places at two facing grand pianos that sit beneath two large gilded picture frames. Carsey and Frey, who have taken over for Greenblatt and Dykstra, the Canadians who originated the roles, whisper uncivilly to one another, then change pianos and swap benches. As they are wearing black tailcoats, Groucho Marx comes to mind, but they are more like more dignified variations on Harpo and Chico, those two immortal musician clowns.

The music begins with the First Movement of the D Minor Concerto by Johann Sebastian Bach, which soon degenerates into a fiendish race, then falls apart. Briefly, the players sweeten the night with something less difficult, Hoagy Carmichael's "Heart and Soul." The two extremes of the keyboard are thus advanced, and over the two acts, after the men have stripped for action by removing their jackets, the concert/comedy/drama contrasts the demands of "serious music," as its highbrow practitioners are wont to call the realm of Bach and Mozart, with the siren songs of popular music, from John Lennon to Richard Rodgers, Billy Joel to Vangelis.

Both performers have reached middle age. Frey, bald on top, is the sillier of the duo, mimicking a runner in "Chariots of Fire" under a strobe as the famous Vangelis rhapsody drums along in an homage to unserious music. Carsey, with salt-and-pepper hair, has a sad look about him, vaguely Keatonesque. His comedy arises largely from sardonic sideways glances. But both piano men throw themselves into various roles, even impersonating women and adopting accents.

One lesson of the evening hangs on the old Carnegie Hall punch line: "Practice, practice, practice." At one time or another, both Frey and Carsey play boys, forced to give up the joys of hockey to labor over those 88 black and white keys. When one acts a struggling lad, the other acts a parent, a father in one case, a silhouetted mother in another. To start with, the parents, especially the domineering male figure, threaten the sons with terrible things for failing to practice. At one point, Carsey's father, who seems to have failed as a prodigy himself, offers Frey's defiant boy the chance to end it all, even calling the teacher. The boy caves in, and the torture goes on and on.

Carsey and Frey become rivals in competitions, attempting to one-up one another. They also play even more dreadful father figures, the pedagogues who wound with their pronouncements and who harshly demand perfect pitch and flawless identifications of various note configurations.

The early jokes of the whispered dialogue and physical comedy ultimately give way to glimpses of the failure that await those who cannot measure up to the demands of the keyboard tyrants. Playing Joel's "Piano Man" in a gin mill is one humiliation. Giving lessons - and therapy - to a talentless matron with a straying husband is another. One of the students elects to switch to jazz and renders an ornate variation on "My Funny Valentine," decorated with many an arpeggio. This trifle gets a harsh dismissal - though the house applauds it eagerly.

Most of "2 Pianos 4 Hands" requires no deep sense of music appreciation and, in fact, offers some tutelage in the rarefied world of concert music.

To an untrained ear, both players seem masters as they ripple out bits of Beethoven, Mozart, Grieg, Chopin, Schumann, Schubert and Liszt. Mozart's Sonata Facile in C Major seems not to be so easy, after all, and Grieg's "Hall of the Mountain King" gets murdered. But in the end, after it seems that all is lost for the two boys, now middle-aged, a recording of Vladimir Horowitz's playing Liszt's "Mephisto Waltz" delivers an epiphany. And as Steve Lucas' magical lighting fills an upstage scrim with blue-and-white skies, Carsey and Frey end as they began, with Bach, this time rendered flawlessly.

Copyright 2005, Hartford Courant