Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, July, 1999
It is a dangerous proposition when the author, the director and the producer of a play are one and the same person. Richard Corley, who wears all those hats in the BTF Unicorn production of “Shoot The Piano Player” undoubtedly really loves the 1956 novel by David Goodis and honestly believes that it is “particularly suited to the stage”. I have not read the book nor seen the 1960 Francois Truffaut film, but having seen Corley’s stage adaptation, I cannot say that I share his view.
It seems to me that this tale is more suited to film than to theatre, and, since it has already had a successful life on the printed page and on the screen, I don’t really understand the need to bring it to the stage. Once a filmmaker of the caliber of Truffaut has immortalized a book, a stage version can never match it. Take the film out of film noir and you are left with just the noir.
But here it is, performed on a fascinating set designed by sculptress Carol Bailey. Corley has tried to stage this play as if it were a movie, using Brian Aldous’ lighting design to focus the audience’s attention as specifically as a film director can. But of course that never works. In a film we only see what the director selects for us to see. On the stage our attention can happily wander from the lighted area to see what is going on in the shadows, or up in to the rafters to see whether that fake snow is being scattered mechanically or by human hands.
“Shoot The Piano Player” is the tale of two estranged brothers – Eddie and Turley Lynn. Eddie (Lance Williams) was a concert pianist of some renown who is now happy to send his days plunking out honky-tonk tunes in a Philadelphia dive. Turley (John Cooper) is a minor figure in the underworld. The two haven’t spoken or seen each other in years. (Didn’t I just write this synopsis last week for WTF’s “Glimmer Brothers”?? Two estranged brothers, music…oh well…)
Turley reappears in Eddie’s life and Eddie is not only pulled in to Turley’s sordid underworld affairs, but is also forced to face a past he has attempted to bury. Of course, there is a good looking dame involved. Maggie Lacey plays both Eddie’s current paramour Lena, a waitress at the dive where he plays, but also his late wife Teresa. Lacey is nice to look at, but I wasn’t bowled over by her talent.
In fact, part of the problem with this production is that you don’t really care about anyone much, least of all Eddie. This is partly Williams fault and partly the fault of the script. I never really saw Eddie as haunted by his past or resisting its reemergence into his life. We have all been in that horrible place where we realize that the distance we think we have come in our life turns out to be nothing more than a circle back to where we were. I didn’t ever feel that the Eddie Williams and Corley created was there.
Eddie clings to his piano playing, but Williams does not play the piano. Despite many piano shaped things incorporated into the set and the fact that all anyone ever sits on are old piano benches, there is not a piano on stage. The piano and its player are seated high up above the stage, and the show is scored through, as if it were a film. The pianist is not identified in the program, but the original music he plays was composed by David Sherman.
Before the play begins, a metronome is discovered ticking, brilliantly lit, on the stage. The fact that the show is scored like a film locks the actors in to the pace and time dictated by the music.
I also never cottoned up to Cooper’s Turley. Corley seems to have written him as part narrator, part angel/demon come to force Eddie to look away from the piano keys and the structured time of his music and into the real flow of his life. Cooper was entertainingly evil in a stereotypical way.
I came to really enjoy Bailey’s set, although at first I was wondering how such a surreal set would fit with a nitty-gritty tale of crime and punishment. And I did enjoy the fake snow, and watching that machine up in the rafters that dropped it. The machine seemed to breathe as it worked, which gave it a human touch that was missing on the stage.
In case you are wondering, the piano player does not get shot.
“Shoot The Piano Player” is running at the Unicorn Theatre of the Berkshire Theatre Festival until August 7. The show runs two and a half hours with one intermision. Call the box office at 413-298-5576 for tickets and information.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 1999