Elizabeth Franz and John Boyd
in The Piano Teacher
(© Carol Rosegg)
Elizabeth Franz and John Boyd
in The Piano Teacher
(© Carol Rosegg)
It's striking how large a percentage of contemporary drama involves the eventual revelation of a dark family secret, or secrets. Certainly, when something starts as benignly as Julia Cho's arresting new play, The Piano Teacher, now at the Vineyard Theatre under the direction of Kate Whoriskey, you instantly know that something awful -- and possibly awe-full -- is heading your way.

How mild is Cho's intro? Extremely. Within minutes of beginning to tell the full story of her keyboard mentoring days, retired instructor Mrs. K (Elizabeth Franz) actually leaves the stage to pass out cookies to audience members in the first row. That's when you gotta know the disclosure of a dreadful secret approaches like some voracious monster. Indeed, The Piano Teacher nicely illustrates a reliable dramaturgical rule of thumb: The more benign a play's outset, the more horrifying the spilled secret.

You might think that the predictability of an intensely disturbing revelation would hobble the suspense hovering over the lower-middle-class parlor that Derek McLane has beautifully and atmospherically designed with its shawl-covered baby grand and increasingly gloomy wall paper. Not to worry. Although holding off on delineating what Mrs. K is hiding does slow the progress toward Cho's inevitably scary denouement, the particulars -- when finally aired -- make the delay sufficiently worthwhile.

What slowly emerges as Mrs. K talks about her past is, first of all, that she's a profoundly lonely woman. For a good deal of the time, it even seems as if Cho only wants to concentrate on loneliness as Mrs. K -- who addresses the audience directly for most of the work's intermissionless 85 minutes -- recalls a sudden desire to phone former students and invite them to visit her. Only one, Mary Fields (Carmen M. Herlihy) proves to be relatively pleasant, if tentative. A second may be intrigued enough to phone back, since Mrs. K receives a series of calls from someone who refuses to speak but whom she says she hears breathing.

But Cho's urgent message emerges first as Mrs. K. makes more than the occasional reference to her husband, Mr. K, a Holocaust survivor with a frightening past; then as Mrs. K plays host to Mary, who sheds partial light on the unsuccessful recital that ended Mrs. K's teaching days; and finally, a drop-by from former student Michael (John Boyd), the only genuine prodigy with whom Mrs. K believes she came into contact.

To go into the more troubling details would spoil the play's outcome. However, it's fair enough to say that when Mrs. K mentioned that the best advice she ever received from her mother was "Never be 100 percent honest," it's a point she has taken to heart.

There's no denying that by the end of The Piano Teacher, Cho has provided chilling thrills, but she's also been a touch too ambiguous. For instance, she could be more specific about Michael's off-kilter behavior without harming her dramatic tactics. Additionally, a case could be made that Michael is a figment of Mrs. K's guilty imagination -- perhaps a matter of David Weiner's vaguely introductory lighting cue.

Franz -- grey tresses falling below her shoulders and rightly unprepossessing in Ilona Somogyi's shapeless sweater and white socks -- admirably balances the play on her thin shoulders. She guarantees that attention is paid by adroitly shading the lightness of her early remarks to ultimate blackness. Herlihy plays guarded understanding with acuity and Boyd teeters teasingly and mesmerizingly just this side of going over the top. In clever cahoots, the three of them pull off Cho's sinister party trick.