Palo Alto Weekly

Arts & Entertainment - July 20, 2012

An unusual, universal duet

TheatreWorks' 'Upright Grand' sings as a touching father-daughter story, distinctively told

by Kevin Kirby

A man sits at a piano in a seedy bar, gray-haired and bright-eyed. He talks to the crowd, and he noodles at the keyboard as he talks, punctuating his anecdote with musical flourishes. As his story meanders into a schmaltzy song, he begins to sing in a clear, reedy baritone.

The scene is familiar, comfortable. But, as the opening scene in Laura Schellhardt's "Upright Grand," which had its world premiere last weekend at TheatreWorks, it becomes something else — something new, slyly revealing and faintly magical.

Schellhardt's new play is a funny, nostalgic, shamelessly sentimental father-daughter drama, told in a style not quite like anything you've seen before. Performed without intermission, "Upright Grand" spans 18 years in an unrushed 90 minutes, revealing key moments in the relationship between a dive-bar ivory tickler and his Carnegie Hall-bound prodigy of a daughter. But it's the music — or, more precisely, the way that director Meredith McDonough has chosen to deal with the music — that makes the production distinctive. More on that later.

The playwright's previous work "Auctioning the Ainsleys" opened TheatreWorks' 2010-11 season. "Grand" shares many qualities with "Ainsleys." Both plays first came to the company in the New Works Initiative, moving from readings one year to fully staged premieres the next. Both focus on family, exploring universal themes through quirky, carefully drawn characters. And both highlight Schellhardt's nimble wit, incisive characterization and obvious love of language. (The father in "Grand" describes his own long-gone father thus: "He liked his whiskey more than his wages, and he liked his wages more than his wife.")

The new play, though, is more serious, ample laughs notwithstanding. The father and daughter — referred to throughout the play only by the names they give each other: "Pops" and "Kiddo" — follow a darkling path littered with sunny piano-bar standards. Their relationship has the complex texture of so many family relationships: close yet not close, simple yet fraught, supportive yet bitterly competitive. Parental self-sacrifice is central to the story, and, while her ultimate point may remain muddy, Schellhardt expertly maps the risky terrain.

The playwright's craftiness aside, it is the performances that truly make this production shine.

Dan Hiatt plays Pops with an endless variety of expressions, inflections and emotional shadings. Pops is a would-be composer, so obsessed with the songs he has not written, with the artistic contribution he has not made, that he cannot appreciate the joy — his own joy or that of the patrons — that flows from his nightly sessions at the piano bar. He regales the crowd with stories about his beloved daughter, but spends so much of his home time hunched over his old upright grand that he doesn't even know his daughter's age, nor that she has been taking lessons for the past six years. Pops is a complex man, and Hiatt conjures his disarming smile, his childlike enthusiasm, and the underlying pools of rancor and disappointment with equal honesty.

As his daughter — the budding virtuoso who will soon overshadow Pops' humble accomplishments — Renata Friedman gives a virtuoso performance of her own. We see her character first as a knock-kneed, querulous 12-year-old, then at 16, then 21. By the show's end, she is a 30-year-old woman, wondering if her career as a concert pianist has been worth the things she gave up along the way.

Friedman makes the character's growth clear, though she exaggerates the young end of the spectrum a skosh. Her 12 can feel awfully 9-ish at times, especially since McDonough has her crawling around the stage on her knees through much of her first scene (no doubt to mitigate the actress' height). Like Hiatt, Friedman throws all of her resources into the part — posture, voice, sharp comic timing — and the result is both believable and memorable.

Tempting as it may be to think of this play as a two-hander, that couldn't be further from the truth. For in TheatreWorks' production the music becomes a character of its own: not just figuratively, but literally.

McDonough had some choices to make when it came to the show's music. Pops and Kiddo both play extensively, sometimes underneath their own dialogue. McDonough could have put two real pianos on stage — an upright and, say, a baby grand — and searched for actors who could play with confidence while delivering lines. Apart from the casting challenge, this would have left the actors trapped behind their instruments, struggling to connect with the audience over the tops of their pianos.

Instead, scenic designer Kris Stone has created the skeletal outlines of the two instruments: hollow frames through which the actors are clearly visible. Hiatt and Friedman do not play. Rather, they do the pianistic equivalent of lip syncing, faking it with verve while the play's third character, The Accompanist, produces the sounds of their instruments on a real upright grand anchored farther upstage.

More than a clever gimmick, this choice adds an unusual dimension, giving the music a physical life on stage. Brett Ryback is The Accompanist. His performance is every bit as polished as Hiatt's and Friedman's, and his contributions to the story every bit as integral. The accuracy with which Ryback's playing matches up with the other actors' dialogue and faux-piano playing testifies to unimaginable hours of joint practice and a commitment to making this illusion work.

Ryback also steps away from his instrument on occasion to portray other minor characters, including a blind piano tuner and an excitable Russian tutor. These characters are clearly delineated and a pleasure to watch.

The show is nicely costumed by Maggie Whitaker and well lit by Paul Toben. Kris Stone's set, obviously meant to be minimal, is perhaps not minimal enough. Extra piano benches are placed around the perimeter of a central, rotating structure, adding more visual clutter than functionality.

"Upright Grand" kicks off TheatreWorks' 43rd season and also ushers in the company's 11th New Works Festival. It's a good bet for music lovers, as well as for anyone looking for a heartfelt story with a bit of innovative staging and storytelling.

What: "Upright Grand," a play presented by TheatreWorks

Where: Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto

When: Through Aug. 10: Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 7:30 p.m., Thursdays and Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 2 and 8 p.m., and Sundays at 2 and 7 p.m.

Cost: Tickets are $24-$73, with discounts for students and seniors.

Info: Call 650-463-1960 or go to http://theatreworks.org .

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