Ted Dykstra and Richard Greenblatt’s 2 Pianos 4 Hands is considered one of the great success stories of Canadian theatre. Spinning a tale about parallel adolescences tied together by classical piano training, this elegantly simple two-man production balances a double life as crowd-pleasing goofball act punctuated by well-played concertos and a darkly funny memory play marked by hyper-specific inside baseball and the conflictingly nostalgic pull of collective childhood trauma. One of these identities is obviously better theatre than the other but it’s the lesser of the two that’s made 2 Pianos 4 Hands the international touring multi-decade success that it is.
It’s populist fun- some goofy voices here, a verse or two of “Piano Man” there- and a very welcome easy good time in a theatrical moment full of creators desperate to make art that feels important and is therefore often quite difficult to enjoy. 2 Pianos 4 Hands is very easy to enjoy. Dykstra and Greenblatt are capable, engaging performers who’ve crafted something that feels very personal while remaining deeply relatable to anyone who ever studied classical music. And they’re very good piano players (not concert level but definitely at least two of the best in their neighbourhood) so the piece is also rife with the simple joy of sitting and listening to well-played Bach.
Of course I longed for more of that second, darker identity. Hidden within 2 Pianos 4 Hands‘ pleasantries and name-that-tune montage segments is a really affecting story about hard work, passion, identity, and the utter heartbreak of being really honest with yourself. There are laser sharp embodiments of parental pressure, teacher contradictions, and professional rejection nestled amongst the kind of brilliantly pedantic theory specifics you could only possibly write if you lived that RCM life. Should you play your arpeggios with one hand or two? Depends who you ask.
2 Pianos 4 Hands has a frustrating amount of filler, a good 20 extra minutes of “how you doing, New York?”-style not-quite-jokes that thrilled the audience at Sunday’s matinee and made it harder to focus on just how good of a play this is in its bones. I wonder how different it would be without that stuff. I wonder if it could have had the life it’s had without it. I suppose I can’t begrudge a classic the trills its added to keep audiences coming back, I just hope that in all that noise no one misses the melody.