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The world's horrors haunt a living room

In `The Piano Teacher,' a suburban American finds she's not as safe as she had thought.

March 19, 2007|Charles McNulty | Times Staff Writer

A woman seated in the comfort of her living room relates her story. That might not seem to be the most thrilling theatrical gambit (call it La-Z-Boy drama), but it has met with success in the not-so-distant past.

The first act of Tony Kushner's "Homebody/Kabul" centers on a lonely British middle-aged housewife who passionately holds forth, with the help of travelogues she practically knows by heart, on the glory and grief of modern-day Afghanistan. Emily Mann's "Having Our Say," based on the bestselling memoir, invites us into the parlor of two elderly African American sisters who recount decades of struggle and perseverance in the face of racial injustice.

The semi-recumbent (to borrow a Wildean phrase) monologue also makes up a good portion of Julia Cho's "The Piano Teacher," which had its world premiere Friday at South Coast Repertory. If the effect isn't as dynamic here, it's not for a lack of intelligence or expansive themes. The problem is more stylistic, with a sluggish dramaturgy that ventures into territory not far removed from Wallace Shawn's "Aunt Dan and Lemon," though without the flamboyant characterizations, offbeat tempo and polemical verve.

Mrs. K (Linda Gehringer), a kindly, sheepish widow, offers a few audience members cookies before filling us in on how she's been keeping busy since retiring as a private neighborhood piano instructor. Mostly, she's been clocking hours watching exotic travel programs, with "Grease: You're the One that I Want" and "Dancing With the Stars" thrown in for fun. She also treats herself regularly to her dessert of choice, Ding Dongs, a box of which she stashes near the TV. In between, she hazily reflects on her life with her engineer husband, a refugee from an unnamed country with a calamitous history (incessant war, torture and massacres are alluded to), and her many pupils who have studiously remained out of touch.

The setup could scarcely be less dramatic. Cho has undertaken to write a play about a character in denial about the darker facets of human experience. Mrs. K describes her tale as a "small one" compared to her husband's, which contains momentous historical events and blood-soaked family upheavals. Yet "The Piano Teacher" suggests that narratives aren't so discrete. Stories, particularly traumatic ones, bleed into each other. And as "Aunt Dan and Lemon" similarly reveals, their impact on young minds can be devastating.

As a suburban American, Mrs. K would like to assume she's untouched by atrocity. Yet her husband's intimate acquaintance with humanity's brutality has contaminated her. She refuses to acknowledge it (who wants to admit exposure to psychological radiation?), but her screened version of the past is challenged when two former students reenter the room in which they learned to play Bach and Brahms.

Mrs. K has been Ding Dong dialing lately, calling the numbers in her old address book of her now grown-up pupils when she's feeling isolated. She's half-hoping that no one will answer, and half-hoping she'll discover that she has made a difference in their lives. She catches one of her favorites, Mary Fields (Toi Perkins), who hardly sounds thrilled to be hearing from her. Moreover, Mary confesses that she rarely plays the piano anymore.

It's only when the two women are face to face that Mrs. K learns that her husband may have done some harm. The specter of sexual abuse looms, though it takes the uninvited appearance of Michael (Kevin Carroll), Mrs. K's lone prodigy, who has been stymied as an adult by mysterious personal problems, to clear up exactly what transpired in the kitchen when the students were alone with Mr. K.

If "The Piano Teacher" seems more intriguing in synopsis than it does when fully dramatized, that's because its conception is more carefully wrought than its execution. Cho has meticulously thought through the larger psychological issues. But her characters have a sketchy quality, and their interaction isn't always finely observed. Too frequently the play's meanings are articulated rather than enacted.

It's hard not to make unflattering comparisons with Michael Haneke's fascinating post-Bergmanesque film with Isabelle Huppert, "La Pianiste" (released in English as "The Piano Teacher"). The two works share just a title, but there's a lesson in the film that Cho, an emerging talent whose plays include "Durango," "BFE" and "The Architecture of Loss," might benefit from: Haneke is able to tap into the vast morass of cultural fascism without having to academically spell out his subject matter. He keeps his eye on the repressive perversity of everyday living and, through his selection of details, erects a structure of staggering implication.

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