When I get together with my long-time friends, we usually pick out a Milwaukee hot spot, curl up in a booth with a cocktail and an appetizer, and talk about what’s going on in our everyday lives: what’s happening at the office, what our spouses and kids are up to, the books we are reading and the Netflix shows we are watching.
But these nights out with my friends are a sad comparison to when Ted and Richard meet. These are not people that I personally know – although after spending my Sunday evening with them at the Rep, I would love nothing more than to hit a happy hour with them – but according to the season opener "2 Pianos 4 Hands," a typical rendezvous between these childhood buddies apparently revolves around a vast array of impressions, endless joke telling and hardcore, no-nonsense piano skills.
The autobiographical play, written by Ted Dykstra and Richard Greenblatt, is the riotous story of two childhood friends who spent years chasing their shared dream of concert pianist stardom. That description alone would lead you to believe that you have seen this tale – or at least some variation of it – many times before, but how this story is presented is the definition of original. That’s because "2 Pianos 4 Hands" is the theater world’s version of dueling pianos.
In addition to their own roles as Ted and Richard, stars Joe Kinosian and Ben Moss put any audience member's multi-tasking ability to shame as they portray a plethora of personalities from across their ambitious journey – including a (not quite) patient nun and an over-served bar patron among the most memorable. Throughout the evening, they perform segments of classical masterpieces by greats like Beethoven and Bach on a pair of grand pianos with ease and confidence. It's a beautifully fluid back-and-forth that plays like an onstage tennis match.
Little else occupies the stage except for the performers and two grand pianos. Color comes from the lively yet understated background provided by scenic designer Michelle Lilly, while Aaron Lichamer's lighting design functions as the visual equivalent of mood music – perfect choices that placed the charming versatility of Kinosian and Moss center stage as the duo brought the audience into the competitive and surprisingly cutthroat world of classical music with a comical and poignant viewpoint.
Even the best gatherings with friends, however, can hit the occasional sour note – and "2 Pianos 4 Hands" is no different. Certain points of the night have an issue with pacing. As funny as it is to see Ted and Richard be quizzed on the names of musical chords in the opening minutes of the show, it is funny for the first minute. But when the joke continues for the next two minutes, you are more than ready to move on to the next part of the story. Another conversation between a young Richard and his pianist father feels lengthy and borderline intrusive, so much so that you find yourself looking at the nearby piano, praying for someone to just play some Chopin already.
Fortunately, this minor complaint largely resolved itself in the second act. The last hour of the show features some truly heartbreaking moments where both men allow the audience to see what made them give up their ambitious musical journey. While a vast majority of the crowd likely can't relate to playing and memorizing a 64-page piano piece, who in the audience hasn't come to a painful realization that a dream of glory will never become a reality? These are the times where Kinosian and Moss prove they don't need to be behind a piano to show off their extraordinary talents.
2 Pianos 4 Hands" is a fast-paced display of the finest musical talent, as well as some of the hardest working talent, in Milwaukee today. It will also make you want to sign up for piano lessons, then immediately call to cancel them because you know you will never be that good. Instead call up your friends to put your next gathering on the calendar; hopefully it's the kind of get-together that plays like the best of "2 Pianos 4 Hands" and less like the rough patches.
"2 Pianos 4 Hands" runs through Nov. 3 in the Stackner Cabaret. Tickets can be purchased online at MilwaukeeRep.com, by calling the ticket office at (414) 224-9490, or in person at the ticket office, 108 E. Wells St., in Downtown Milwaukee.