YOU COULD SURELY FEEL A spirit of empathy practically shuddering through the Promenade Theatre last night, where the opening of "Two Pianos, Four Hands," an entertainment both created and performed by a Canadian duo, Ted Dykstra and Richard Greenblatt, proved an unexpected charmer.
Anyone who has ever taken a piano lesson, or, much more significant, ever simply encountered some kind of career or life disappointment and moved on, can identify with their story, chuckle and have a great time.
The setting is dominated by two grand pianos. (Well, what did you hope for, vacuum cleaners?). Behind them is the suggestion of a concert platform; it looks as though they could auction off one piano and use the rest for a modest road tour of Terrence McNally's "Master Class."
And, indeed, like "Master Class" it is a behind-the -scenes look at the nuts and bolts of musical, performance, and all that practice, practice, practice, which proverbially points out how you get to Carnegie Hall.
But whereas "Master Class" starred a range of legendary actresses playing the legendary Maria Callas teaching, "Two Pianos, Four Hands" stars Messrs. Dykstra & Greenblatt playing the far-
from-legendary Messrs. Dykstra & Greenblatt playing. There is a certain loss here in intrinsic basic glamour.
And when our self-anointed heroes of the evening enter and start messing around with crass, throat-clearing piano-stool jokes, which would hardly have done credit to someone impersonating Glenn Gould, the heart sinks.
Worry not. The first minute or so thawed out, the rest was utter and surprising enchantment. These guys are actors and pianists. Actors first, and pianists second, but that's the story of their show. They are very good failed pianists. Or rather they are flashy: failed pianists. Adequate enough for public consumption, but certainly not good enough for prime-time Carnegie Hall.
The show delights on two levels - you might empathize on both or merely on one. It doesn't matter. It should hit you on the ironic funny bone of self-identification.
Level one is the piano-study bit. This is the semi-autobiographical story of two guys, who both wanted to be classical concert pianists and had conservatory training. They take us thorough all their various lessons, parents, exams and trials. Anyone who has faced a blank piano keyboard and listened, at any level, to the
exhortations of piano teachers will recall the agony, or at best the pleasure/pain.
Now, they are both fine pianists. If I could play as well as that I would think of myself more as Arthur Rubenstein than Victor Borge. Mind you, if I could play as well as Victor Borge I would think myself more as Arthur Rubenstein than Victor Borge.
This is the point. Here is the second and more poetic level of empathy. However good Dykstra and Greenblatt are - and listening to them play pieces from Bach back to Billy Joel one soon picks up that they are by our level extraordinarily good - they still have to learn that they are not good enough. They drop out. They fail.
These funny, funny actors, fine natural comedians, unobtrusively helped by Gloria Muzio's staging, are clever, deft and dazzlingly amusing but would not have made even flamboyantly mediocre concert artists. And it doesn't matter.
They are triumphant in what they do. Disappointment is shoved into the closet, as we and they join in the recognition of their fulfillment. And we remember that many of us can enjoy jogging without winning an Olympic marathon. It's nice, even comforting subtext.
NEW YORK – It is customary for guests on The Rosie O’Donnell Show to arrive bearing gifts for the talk show’s host, an acerbic comedian turned fawning daytime den mother.
And Richard Greenblatt and Ted Dykstra – writers and stars of the hit stage play Two Pianos, Four Hands – did not arrive empty-handed.
Canucks to the core, each had a hockey puck for O’Donnell – one bearing the logo of the Edmonton Oilers, the other stamped with the crest of the Montreal Canadiens.
Waiting in the green room for their big TV moment, the pianistic tandem was introduced to another guest for that day’s program: Wayne Gretxky.
Greenblatt, 45, and Dykstra, 37, did what any self-respecting hosers would do. They asked the Great One to autograph the pucks.
The pucks went back into their pockets. O’Donnell would have to get her own.
Chalk it up as another chapter in Richard and Ted’s excellent New York adventure.
Gretzky, now plying his skills with the New York Rangers, is not the only luminary to have crossed paths with Greenblatt and Dykstra during their three-month stint in Manhattan.
ABC-TV anchor Peter Jennings, Frasier’s David Hyde Pierce, illusionists Penn and Teller, acting great Zoe Caldwell and violin virtuoso Itzhak Perlman are among the celebrities who have popped around to the Off-Broadway Promenade Theatre, where Greenblatt and Dykstra have held court since October.
Their two-man musical play about a pair of would-be piano prodigies – a phenomenal cross-Canada hit after opening at Tarragon Theatre in 1995 – has had more than 100 performances since its Oct. 30 New York premiere.
"It’s been fantastic," says Greenblatt. "And it gets better and better and better.
"At first, it was interesting, because the audience was a little older, very upper-west-side middle class. But now it’s getting to the point that people are coming because they’ve heard about it."
Adds Dykstra: "I’ve been doing this for too long to have had any expectations. However, I think at first it looked like it might be difficult. And now it’s just like we’re in Toronto."
The anticipated difficulty had to do with a negative review in the New York Times the morning after the show opened. The production garnered raves from other reviewers, including the Post’s Clive Barnes, who later included it on his top-10 list for the year. But a pan from the Times can be fatal.
Dykstra: "I don’t think the Times has the power it once had. And I’m glad about that."
Greenblatt: "There are a whole bunch of other shows, on Broadway and Off-Broadway, that opened around the same time we did and got rave reviews in the New York Times. They’re gone. And we’re still here.
"I don’t know if I’m being overly sensitive, but I think there was a little of, ‘Who do these guys from Canada think they are?’ in the New York Times’ review."
Dykstra: "But I wouldn’t say that’s the attitude of New York in general."
It is early Saturday evening. Dykstra and Greenblatt, enjoying a pause between shows, are having a bite at a Japanese restaurant next to the Promenade. Their meal is periodically interrupted by other diners who attended that afternoon’s matinee.
A woman approaches with her two young sons, both of whom, she explains,
play piano. The boys, although clearly pleased by the chance encounter, are shy about seeming too forward. The mother is not. The play has been a revelation for her. She vows never again to offer the kind of parental advice that Dykstra and Greenblatt parody in their performance.
"New Yorkers are more demonstrative," Dykstra says. "We’ve got more fan mail here than anywhere. Every day we get a letter or two."
Greenblatt and Dykstra have become minor authorities on regional variations in audience psychology. They’ve been on the road for most of the past two years, having performed in nearly every major Canadian city from Charlottetown to Victoria.
It’s the audience that maintains their interest in the show, Dykstra says. "If we get lousy audiences, then we get a bit down and depressed.
"Montreal was phenomenally quiet. The show was phenomenally successful in Montreal. They offered to bring us back, triple our salary. But we had a miserable time because the audience was just not interacting with us.
"Of all the cities we’ve been to, New York is most like Toronto. You have very sophisticated people. But you can hit a bum night. You can hit a night when there’s a bunch of rich people who don’t know why they’re there."
Altogether, Greenblatt and Dykstra have performed the show nearly 450 times. They give seven performances a week in New York, including two on Wednesdays and Saturdays, with a pair of understudies sitting in for them on Tuesdays.
The current plan, with backing from Mirvish Productions, is to transfer to the Kennedy Centre Washington D.C., in April. The two then plan to take a well-deserved vacation before returning to Toronto and re-opening at the Royal Alexandra Theatre in July.
After that, the two will be ready to move on to other things. Two Pianos, Four Hands, however will live on.
Greenblatt and Dykstra are involved in auditioning performers for a U.S. tour slated for later this year. The show has been translated into French by Toronto Director John Van Burek, in anticipation of productions in Montreal and France, and another Canadian tour is slated for 2000, possibly with female performers.
Not bad for a show that began life as a 20-minute knock-off at the 1994 Tarragon Spring Arts Fair.
Four years later, that modest beginning has evolved into a life-altering experience for the play’s two creators.
Dykstra, who is married to singer/songwriter Melanie Doane, plans to make New York his home beginning in the fall. He already has started auditioning for shows, while continuing to work on a rock musical adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s, "The Picture of Dorian Gray."
Greenblatt, who worked mainly as a director before returning to performing, is looking forward to resuming his directing career. He is working with writer/director Diane Flacks on a play about siblings.
It may lack the glamour of New York, but he is anxious to be at home in Toronto with his wife, stage director Kate Lushington, and their three children – two of whom already have burgeoning careers as performers.
NEW YORK - If they can make it here, they can make it anywhere.
Canadian actor-writers Ted Dykstra and Richard Greenblatt have already made it in Toronto with 2 Pianos 4 Hands, and it looks like they might make it in the Big Apple.
"Success here is unlike anywhere else," Dykstra said last night, after their play premiered to a standing ovation at The Promenade Theatre in Manhattan's Upper West Side.
A hit at the Tarragon Theatre in Toronto last year, the autobiographical play about Dykstra's and Greenblatt's childhood years taking piano lessons hit a key note with the New York crowd - even if they didn't get the references to the Kiwanis music festival.
"It hits every universal emotion," said Veronica Tennant, one of many Canadians, including Toronto Piano producers Ed and David Mirvish, Karen Kain and The Newsroom's Tanya Allen, in the audience of the 400-seat theatre Thursday night.
"I never saw it in Canada and I'm so thrilled to be here. It was brilliant! There were some music people sitting behind me who were just howling."
"I was bustling with pride," said Kain, "they're good, and they're Canadian. I never took piano lessons, but I could relate to pursuing your dreams. I was very moved by it."
Recently finishing a successful Canadian tour, the show is getting offers from backers in Australia, Japan, and Europe.
Even a less than positive New York Times review doesn't seem to matter.
At a Midtown dinner party after the debut,
Dykstra and Greenblatt were given another standing ovation, then partied until the wee hours to '70s tunes from Saturday Night Fever and Sister Sledge.
"The best part, to me," said Dykstra, groovin' on the dancefloor, "is that my parents are here, and they'd never seen the show before. They just moved back here from Holland."
Also here was Dykstra's sister, a piano teacher, who, along with another family sibling who teaches piano, provided some inspiration for the play.
"It was like seeing my life flash before me," she said.
Dykstra also fashioned one piano student in the play after his own pupils when he taught piano at 17.
"She was a compilation of all the middle aged housewives I had as students, " he laughed. "One used to come in and just talk for the half hour every week. It was like a therapy session."
The show even piqued the piano memories of the boss' wife.
"My immigrant grandmother sold children's clothing door-to-door so she could buy us a piano," said Ann Mirvish, husband of Ed. "Back then piano lessons cost twenty-five cents a lesson," she smiled.
"To me, a home isn't a home without a piano."
To Dykstra, who was teary-eyed by the time he played their encore, Sheep May Safely Graze, he's taking home on the road.
"Tonight, especially, I was thanking my parents for giving me piano lessons."