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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  NY Theater Reviews

at the Vineyard Theatre

By Bill Stevenson

  Elizabeth Franz/Ph:Carol Rosegg

Julia Cho's new play begins as a deceptively simple portrait of a lonely, elderly piano teacher trying to reconnect with her former students. As it progresses, the 90-minute drama becomes a haunting look at how we can never escape the past and how evil exists even in the most innocent settings. In the demanding title role, Elizabeth Franz gives a masterful performance that helps make The Piano Teacher memorably unsettling.

For much of the monologue-heavy play, the grandmotherly Mrs. K (Franz) speaks directly to the audience. She recalls when she first showed a gift for the piano as a child and even offers cookies to people seated in the front row. Due to arthritis, Mrs. K doesn't play the piano much anymore, and since the death of her husband, Mr. K, she has spent most of her time alone in her comfortable suburban living room. Out of boredom and curiosity, she calls some of her former students to find out what's become of them. The first former pupil we meet, Mary Fields (Carmen M. Herlihy), is happily married and has fond memories of her lessons. When she visits Mrs. K, however, we learn that she and other students spent time with Mr. K in the kitchen. It gradually becomes apparent that Mr. K was doing something to disturb the kids, although it's not what one might expect.

Cho skillfully drops hints as the play grows darker. Mrs. K reveals that her late husband was from a war-torn country who managed to survive unspeakable atrocities. She talks of the sadness in the world. It hurts to look, she says, so who really wants to look? The mood grows more sinister as Mrs. K receives phone calls from someone who only breathes into the receiver. When another former pupil named Michael (John Boyd ) visits Mrs. K, we learn more about what went on in the house besides practicing Bach and Beethoven.

In previous Off Broadway plays like BFE and Durango, Cho has shown a talent for characterization and dialogue. Here her plotting is even more assured as she ratchets up the tension. Director Kate Whoriskey lets the suspense build incrementally, and Derek McLane's wallpapered living-room set is perfect. Cho is extremely lucky to have Franz playing Mrs. K. The original star of Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You and a Tony winner for her powerful performance in the 1999 revival of Death of a Salesman, Franz makes Mrs. K a complicated figure who isn't merely a sad old woman. It's an indelible portrait that is even more impressive considering Franz's age and the fact that she seems almost as frail as the character she's playing.

After seeing Cho's quietly chilling play, one may never look at a sweet old piano teacher the same way again.



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