December 1, 2007

True Genius in "The Piano Teacher"

In the weeks before the writers' strike shut down TV production, television execs were patting themselves on the back and boasting that, unlike the movies where a woman over 30 is considered long in the tooth, several TV series were giving older actresses a place to show off their talent. But, out of the women they were talking about—Glenn Close (a ball-busting lawyer on FX's "Damages"), Mary Louise Parker (a middle-class drug dealer on Showtime's "Weeds") Holly Hunter (a dysfunctional cop on TNT's "Saving Grace"), Kyra Sedgwick (a quixotic cop on TNT's "The Closer"), and Vanessa Williams (a narcissistic fashion editor on ABC's "Ugly Betty")—only Close is currently eligible for an AARP card.

Theater is different. One of the reasons I love it is that women of all ages (and sizes, shapes and ethnicities) can—and do—strut their stuff on its stages. Right now, Debra Monk and Karen Ziemba are kicking up their heels in Curtains. SinĂ©ad Cusack is giving two kick-ass performances in Rock 'n' Roll. Phylicia Rashad, who has only come into her own in the past decade even winning the Tony in 2004, is in previews in Cymbeline. And, of course, the whole premise of Mamma Mia! pivots around a boomer-age mom and her pals.

I thought about all of this after watching the hands-down best performance I've seen this year: Elizabeth Franz in Julia Cho's The Piano Teacher. Although some theatergoers will remember her as the original unctuous nun in Christopher Durang's Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You and Franz first knocked me out in her Tony-winning performance as Linda Loman in the 1999 revival of Death of a Salesman, she isn't a big name. But she is a big talent. She's also 66.

And that's fitting because Cho's play tells the story of a retired and widowed piano teacher who, out of loneliness, tries to reconnect with some of her old students to find out why in one particular year so many of them stopped taking lessons. The two who show up—the very good Carmen M. Herlihy and the young and very promising John Boyd—bring with them unsettling answers that force the teacher to confront truths she has spent a lifetime trying to avoid.

Director Kate Whoriskey hits every chord of tension in the piece, which runs just under 90 minutes. She is ably assisted by Derek McLane's cozy, yet slightly creepy, set; and Obadiah Eaves' subtlety unnerving sound design. But it is Franz who makes the show worth a trip down to the Vineyard Theatre on 15th Street, where the run has been extended until Dec. 23. Her Mrs. K, as the piano teacher is called, is a complete person and Franz makes you feel every emotion she experiences.

Many of those feelings are disturbing because the play is intentionally ambiguous, allowing the viewer to bring her or his own nightmares to its mysteries. Cho totters at times on this ambitious tightrope she has set for herself but she is a playwright to be watched and supported. A Korean-American, she includes Asian characters in all of her works and yet race and politics seldom take center stage but, rather, add undertones that accentuate the commonality of human experience. And at just 32, Cho has created a master role that older actresses will treasure for years to come (click here to read an interview in which she discusses the genesis of The Piano Teacher).

Cho isn't the only playwright who has recognized the inherent drama that can be mined from centering plays around such characters. Contemporary writers from Horton Foote to Tom Stoppard have created big, juicy roles for actresses who are mature enough to bring a lifetime’s worth of experience and skill to those parts.The jobs don't pay as well as playing cops and robbers or comic foils on TV but the pay off—for the actors and their audiences
—is richer.


Esther said...

I just want to add "August: Osage County" to the list. Tracy Letts has written characters and dialogue that really speak to the lives of women today. It's truly remarkable.

Esther said...

I have a question to ask you privately. Would it be possible for you to e-mail me? You can get the address from my profile. Thanks.