Almost Grand

Pianos and punch lines please at the Play House.

Pianos are the crack cocaine of all musical instruments, addictive because they seem so easy to play: There is virtually no other serious instrument on which a rank beginner can create single sounds as well as an expert. For example, we all can play a C-major seventh chord (if someone tells us which keys to hit) as well as Horowitz ever did. Try doing that on a clarinet or a violin. The piano sucks us in, then proceeds to destroy our psyches with all its devilish complexities.

Those who have ever dreamed of tickling the ivories, or who have been subjected to the existential agonies of seemingly endless childhood piano lessons, should definitely catch the season's first production at the Cleveland Play House. 2 Pianos, 4 Hands is the flashback reminiscence of two Canadians, Richard Greenblatt and Ted Dykstra, who combined their considerable classical-keyboard skills with comedic acting chops to trace the trajectory of two guys who play piano just well enough to be "the best in the neighborhood." And while the show aspires to comment on the nature of artistic excellence and the wistfulness of dreams denied, it works more successfully as a crazy-quilt piano concert and a humorous reflection on growing up with a piano bench attached to your butt.

This production features two eminently talented fellows, Mark Anders (playing Ted) and Carl J. Danielsen (as Richard), who have taken this musical pastiche to several states and now perform it as a prepackaged show on the Play House's Bolton stage. Setting aside the issue of our esteemed local theater relying on a turnkey production to open its 88th season, 2P4H is consistently amusing and delightfully melodic, as the two performers play everything in sight -- including a variety of goofy characters, classical études, and the occasional pop tune. All the nightmare piano-lesson memories are here, from the crotchety knuckle-rapping instructors ("Curve your fingers! Lower your wrists!") to the oppressively totalitarian click-beat of the metronome. At times, it feels as if the playwrights are trying too hard to fit everything in, as they run through quizzes on composers (by nationality) and piano terminology (at a pace veering from allegro to presto). But Anders and Danielsen, under the direction of Bruce K. Sevy, never lose their contagious good humor.

It's only when the play touches on the failed potential of these pianists as they age, tucked into the last third of this 95-minute show, that things bog down. Ramrod-stiff classicist Richard tanks a jazz tryout (even though many classical musicians can also kick it in the jazz idiom), and the more emotional Ted runs into problems as a piano teacher and a bar entertainer. Since there isn't enough character development to flesh out these two pianists, we never completely connect with the eclipse of their dreams. But this performing duo creates a bundle of laughs, along with some lovely piano moments (especially the concluding double-Steinway performance of the Mephisto Waltz). No matter how you spinet, that ain't bad.