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Philadelphia by Tim Dunleavy

The Piano Lesson and The Odd Couple

Also see Nancy's review of Copenhagen

The Piano Lesson
Kes Khemnu, Harum Ulmer, Julian Rozzell, Jr., and Yaegel T. Welch
August Wilson's The Piano Lesson is, on its surface, a simple story: a brother and sister arguing over whether to sell a family heirloom. What makes the play so special is that the piano in question isn't the only thing that makes beautiful music here. Wilson's poetic language is what makes the tale remarkable. And the Arden Theatre's new production, conducted beautifully by director Walter Dallas, really makes the show sing.

Like so many of Wilson's plays, The Piano Lesson is suffused with themes of mysticism, history and family legacy. In this case, the legacy is symbolized by a piano that Berniece keeps in her Pittsburgh home in 1936, never even allowing it to be played. Her brother, Boy Willie, arrives from Mississippi, intending to sell the piano so he can buy farmland. To Boy Willie, the piano is just an asset to be disposed of in order to further his ambitions. But this isn't just any piano; it's carved with images of the family's roots in slavery. "All of that is in the past," says Boy Willie dismissively. But to Berniece, and to August Wilson, the past is present - it's something we can never escape. And the resolution comes not in a spat between siblings but in a showdown against a most unexpected force.

The Piano Lesson runs three hours, and at times it feels a little padded. Yet moments that seem unrelated to the plot - a few touches of light comedy, a forceful musical interlude for the men - all add up to give the characters added dimension. There are plenty of disagreements between the characters, but everyone seems sympathetic and reasonable. And, thanks to Dallas' graceful direction, the production never stoops to cheap laughs in the comedy scenes - every moment feels natural and essential.

Dallas also secures wonderful performances out of his cast, notably Kes Khemnu, who is forceful and spellbinding as Boy Willie, and Kala Moses Baxter as Berniece, the dignified heart of the show. Baxter was a late addition to the cast, arriving just a few days before the premiere - but you'd never know it from her flawless performance. Berniece's dispute with her brother is not her only conflict; she's also torn between the spiritual and the carnal, as epitomized here by the two men who pursue her - preacher Avery (Brian Anthony Wilson, warm and likable) and her brother's sidekick Lymon (Yaegel T. Welch, funny and dangerously charismatic). Julian Rozzell, Jr. is excellent as Berniece's plainspoken uncle Doaker, as is Harum Ulmer, Jr. as a family friend who has his own reasons for not wanting to let go of the past.

Despite its length, the Arden's production of The Piano Lesson makes you want to spend more time in the company of this family. Wilson's characters are flawed yet endearing, and the story is deep and compelling; all of those qualities come through in this elegant and beautiful production.

The Piano Lesson runs through April 13, 2008 at the Arden Theatre Company, 40 North Second Street. Ticket prices range from $27 to $45 (with group discounts available) and may be purchased by calling the Arden Box Office at 215-922-1122, online at www.ardentheartre.org or by visiting the box office.

Photo: Mark Garvin


The Odd Couple
Avi Hoffman and Gary Marachek
I probably don't need to explain the plot of Neil Simon's The Odd Couple. It's a comedy classic that has endured thousands of productions, not to mention inspiring a movie and a TV series. So it's no surprise that the show scores big laughs at the Walnut Street Theatre, even though the Walnut's production is less than ideal.

The Broadway revival two seasons ago earned bigger laughs, and not just because it had big stars (Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick). Director Joe Mantello let his actors pause after nearly every line for the audience to laugh - and the laughter came nearly every time. But at the Walnut, director Bill Van Horn barely lets his actors pause for just a breath before they go on to the next line. If a line gets a laugh, that just means the laughter drowns out the next line. The production would be better if Van Horn trusted the material to win over the audience.

It would also be better with a different Oscar and Felix. As the unrepentant slob Oscar Madison, Avi Hoffman isn't bad, but with his soft voice and lackadaisical manner, he never quite commands the stage the way Oscar should. As for Gary Marachek's Felix Ungar, a friend who came with me put it best when he said that Marachek turned this into an Odd Couple with "two Oscars." Marachek is disheveled, frantic and blustery; he never seems convincing as the tidy, neurotic neat freak in Simon's script. (Some of the script's descriptions of Felix, like "He's the only man in the world with clenched hair," just don't fit Marachek.) The rapport between the two actors is unusually muted; their arguments are a little too civil.

Fortunately, Simon's script holds up - it says a lot about human nature, and the jokes still ring true - so even a sub-par odd couple doesn't sink this Odd Couple. And Van Horn gets solid, broad performances from his supporting cast, especially Madi DeStefano and Leah Walton as the Pigeon Sisters. The act two scene in which the sisters have an ill-fated dinner date with Felix and Oscar is the production's highlight - it's the only time the tempo slows down enough to let the script and the actors work their magic. And Oscar's poker buddies are so strong (and strong-voiced) that they threaten to overpower Oscar at times. There's particularly good work from Michael Serratore as the increasingly anxious Murray, and from Jeffrey Coon as the uptight Vinnie. Coon works so hard (and well) at being a nerd that it almost seems like he's auditioning for the role of Felix. Too bad he didn't get the part.

There are no surprises here - but who goes to see The Odd Couple for surprises? Go to see it to have a pleasant night out - and you'll find that even with miscast stars and pacing that's sloppier than Oscar Madison himself, an imperfect Odd Couple is better than none.

The Odd Couple runs through April 27, 2008 at the Walnut Street Theatre, 825 Walnut Street, Philadelphia. Ticket prices range from $10 to $57.50, and are available by calling the box office at 215-574-3550, online at www.walnutstreettheatre.org or www.ticketmaster.com, or by visiting the box office.

Photo: Brett Thomas  


-- Tim Dunleavy



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