With the National Arts Centre’s production of 2 Pianos 4 Hands, it’s easy to see why the play is considered a Canadian classic that has never gone a year without being performed in some part of the world in the 23 years since it was first staged in Toronto. It’s a brilliant show, a modern classic for sure, and for those who have seen it before, the NAC’s summer production won’t disappoint.
The play, written in 1996 by Ted Dykstra and Richard Greenblatt, is a Kunstler roman on stage, following two young pianists as they grow into, and eventually fail to become, classical musicians. This year’s NAC production, directed by Greenblatt himself, features the incredibly talented Reza Jacobs and Max Roll as the young pianists Ted and Richard.
Both men are hilariously adept at playing everything from 7-year-olds struggling with music fundamentals to whiny 10-year-olds to snotty teenagers.
Though they play young boys—the show roughly covers their development from the ages of 7 to 17—Jacobs and Roll are adults, and that’s where a lot of the comedy comes from. Both men are hilariously adept at playing everything from 7-year-olds struggling with music fundamentals to whiny 10-year-olds to snotty teenagers. The duo also captures perfectly the idiosyncrasies of some of the weirder piano teachers any young musician is bound to encounter as they take lessons. Each man plays the other’s respective teacher, and they become more outlandish as the play progresses.
2 Pianos also takes a lot of its humour from the rituals of being a young musician.
2 Pianos also takes a lot of its humour from the rituals of being a young musician. In this way the play is one large music student in-joke. The audience couldn’t stop laughing as the boys struggle with their theory fundamentals; and the mere appearance onstage of a Kiwanis Music Festival logo brought the audience nearly to tears. There was an audible gasp from the audience when Richard sits for his Royal Conservatory Grade 7 exam. What 2 Pianos shows us is that the experience of developing musicians across Canada is surprisingly homogenous, and it’s that relatability that makes it so funny.
The second half of the play takes a more serious turn as Ted and Richard, both aged 17, come face-to-face with the harsh realities of being a professional musician, particularly a classical one. Despite being over 20 years old, the play is more relevant now than before. Richard, in a moment of rebellion, declares that the classical world will continue to get smaller and more insular, until it’s reduced to a group of weirdos completely on the outside of society. Ted struggles under the impossibly exacting demands of practicing and begins to yearn for a more fulfilling life. Ted’s experience is universal; Richard’s insights accurate.
The NAC’s production is boosted by the simple stage design, created by Steve Lucas, which privileges the actors over everything else.
In his liner notes, director Greenblatt actually talks of the Law of Specificity—that a play must be specific to have a chance at being universal. Though it’s about pianists—and a lot of the jokes are for music nerds—the play is painfully applicable to anyone who’s ever tried to be the best in a highly competitive field. It uses jokes about time signatures and the lack of Canadian composer to nail down that specificity, but by doing so, it makes itself relatable to anyone in the audience.
The NAC’s production is boosted by the simple stage design, created by Steve Lucas, which privileges the actors over everything else. 2 Pianos is a small-scale play that focuses intensely on the two people playing the role, not on technical elements. The entire stage is dominated by two gorgeous grand pianos set facing each other—from the very beginning, Ted and Richard are in competition with each other, and they’re pianos show that. A lot of the play is just music—Mozart, Bach, Chopin and Beethoven dominate—and the audience can settle into their seats and enjoy Roll’s and Jacobs’ excellent playing.
If you’ve ever taken piano lessons or even played music in school, this play will be highly relatable—it’s every young musician’s life displayed on stage. The NAC’s production is a welcome addition to the already-venerable production history of this Canadian classic.
2 Pianos 4 Hands is at the National Arts Centre Tuesday through Saturday until August 3 at the Babs Asper Theatre. Tickets, including Live Rush, are available online.