Julia Cho has followed up last season’s touching Durango with The Piano Teacher, a provocative, haunting, and not quite satisfactory new parable that confirms her most exciting asset as a playwright—her desire to stretch. Not content to replay the particular woes of her own gender, ethnic group, or generation, Cho is an inherently inquisitive writer. The three plays of hers I’ve seen, for three years in succession, at three different nonprofit institutions Off-Broadway, have been largely unlike each other in tone, form, subject, and the range of characters explored. If their realization is sometimes hazy, as it is in The Piano Teacher, the adventurous spirit behind it makes you inclined to forgive. A writer who keeps exploring may not grasp everything fully on first encounter, but a writer who never explores and never asks questions has already lost the race.
A near-monologue for Elizabeth Franz, who embodies the title role with a wonderful mix of delicacy and fierceness, The Piano Teacher is the story of unassuming, self-effacing Mrs. K., who lives in “a suburb among suburbs” with her husband, never seen onstage, a refugee survivor of indescribable brutalities in some unnamed foreign country. While Mrs. K. gives her lessons at the living-room piano, Mr. K., a retired engineer somewhat older than his wife, loiters in the kitchen, entertaining, with fruit juice and stories, students who arrive early. While Franz describes this arrangement, beaming proudly at her 30 years of helping children love and understand music, the image seems to cast a sweetly grandparent-ish glow, a Norman Rockwell Saturday Evening Post cover come to life.
Some of the students, however, have a different interpretation of the idyllic scene, one that the now elderly and widowed Mrs. K. is forcefully reminded of when, suddenly seized by nostalgia, she digs out her old record book and starts telephoning alumni of the kitchen-and-keyboard tutoring process. As recollected by some of the students, Mr. K.’s stories were more terrifying than diverting; they seem to have had something to do with that last recital at which every student’s performance turned into a train wreck; and there’s that one case Mrs. K. doesn’t like to discuss, of the prodigy who in some unexplained manner went “horribly wrong.” He may or may not have been Michael (John Boyd), the former student who, unphoned, shows up at Mrs. K.’s door to share excruciating details not only of Mr. K.’s stories but of nasty overheard fights between the K.’s. Life isn’t always what elderly widows are happy to remember . . .
The revelations turn The Piano Teacher into a sort of civilized version of The Pillowman, less fully realized than Martin McDonagh’s play but also more substantive. The Pillowman dealt with vicious stories of violence inflicted on children in an almost abstract context, where both the violence and the storytelling were locked within the confines of the author-hero’s family, and you could never quite believe that the police of his imaginary totalitarian country needed to bother so about him; everything except the stories, which were played out explicitly, was so nebulous that it was hard to stifle a natural suspicion that the whole structure was just an elaborate excuse for reveling in the gory details.
Cho, in contrast, doesn’t spell out Mr. K.’s scary stories; instead, she gives them a believable source, puts them in the context of a world with a reasonable resemblance to our own, and leaves us to ponder the ethics, the morals, and the possible psychological effects of telling such stories to children. The delicacy and good sense of this approach are only vitiated by Cho’s having left so many areas of her own narrative hazy: It’s impossible to parse out how long Mrs. K.’s husband went on menacing the kiddies, how many or how few victims he had, or even what actually happened as a result of his tales. Even guessing in what decade The Piano Teacher takes place isn’t easy—when was the last time any substantial number of American children took piano lessons?
Still, the parable carries the weight that Cho strives to put on it. With an actress of Franz’s assurance, strength, and elegant sweetness of spirit, its 85 minutes can’t fail to grip you, however many unanswered questions you find yourself with at the end. (I mean the kind you want to ask the playwright, not those you feel the need to sort out for yourself.) Kate Whoriskey, directing, has guided Franz through the speeches in a subtle, largely unpressured manner, providing for diversion a wistfully charming performance by Carmen M. Herlihy as a relatively unscathed former student. Whoriskey’s one misstep is with Boyd, allowing his big climactic scene to get heavily gestural, as if this material—the most inherently dramatic in the script—needed underscoring, though the stunned, stony shock of Franz’s reaction to it is quite enough to make the whole house seem to be rattling.
Scary stories also crop up in Noah Haidle’s Rag and Bone, at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, which features among its self-consciously bizarre array of stereotyped characters a tender-hearted street pimp (Kevin Jackson) who weeps at the slightest provocation, whines apologetically after hitting anybody, and asks tensely, “Is it scary?” when someone volunteers to tell him a story. Like Haidle’s previous New York outing, last year’s Mr. Marmalade, Rag and Bone provides a constant—and constantly irritating—display of this kind of factitious cleverness, a merger of childish whimsy and would-be low-down sordidness that can’t help but leave behind a brackish aftertaste. It’s like having a well-meaning child pour vinegar in your espresso to show you how thoughtful he is.
Haidle’s main characters are two brothers, played by Matthew Stadelmann and Michael Chernus, fresh from all-too-similar (though non-sibling) roles in Rattlestick’s previous production, Adam Rapp’s American Sligo. As in Rapp’s work, Stadelmann plays an impossibly naive ninny and Chernus the wearily reality-facing elder bro who protects him; Haidle’s script also shares with its Rappian predecessor an idolized dead mother for whom a cartoonishly absurd replacement duly appears. Nor is Rapp the sole source of the evening’s feeling of déj
à vu; you can reconstruct Haidle’s reading list from his gimmickry. The brothers run an absurd business—a ladder store (cf. the meat department store in Arnold Weinstein’s Red Eye of Love), where Chernus’s character makes bigger money from black-market heart transplants that give the recipient the original owner’s personality (cf. Kenneth Koch’s A Change of Hearts).
A wandering poet (Henry Stram) whose heart has been stolen, a millionaire (David Wohl) who can’t find his, and a hooker (Deirdre O’Connell) whose aortic musculature is pure gold but totally devoted to her work—all escapees from a thousand earlier plays—round out the list of major characters. To watch these excellent actors, under Sam Gold’s direction, finesse their way through Haidle’s mucky paste of cutesy-poo and crassness makes for a deeply dismaying experience; its most annoying aspect is the evidence of Haidle’s genuine talent that keeps glimmering through his relentless attempts to display his imagination. It made me recall something the British critic C.E. Montague wrote back in J.M. Barrie’s whimsical heyday: “The way to get into heaven is to become as a little child again, so long as you don’t keep thinking what an adorable child you are.