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A CurtainUp Berkshires Review

Shoot the Piano Player

Night after night
Wastin away in the bush leagues
When you could be in the majors
Cause you got the stuff
Got it in them ten fingers
-- Turley Lynn, a gangster trying to convince his brother to use the musical talent he's buried with his erstwhile love. The brother resists with:
Get it through your cracked egg
You won't pull me back in

David Goodis who along with Jim Thompson and Cornell Woolrich was one of the leading noir novelists of the cold war era was once dubbed as a "poet of losers." His novels were the wellspring for several films, the most famous being François Truffault's Shoot the Piano Player. A terrific cast, headed by singer Charles Aznavour as the moody piano player and the inventive direction with its memorable mix of great comedy and great drama made that film a classic. Now Richard Corley has adapted the novel to the stage, choosing to stick to it's American roots and to let the story play out as a grand opera without any attempt at sending up the noir genre.

The story with its inevitably bloody ending certainly has all the elements of an opera: Eddie Lynn (Lance Williams) is trying to obliterate two past lives -- the life of his drunken father and small-time gangster brother, and the better life briefly found by means of his musical talent. Since a tragic love affair ended that briefly flaming brilliant career, Eddie has been playing piano in a cheap joint, Harriet's Hut. Into that life of "serving time in the world" comes brother Turley (John Cooper), -- he's still getting himself into trouble (the life-threatening kind). Turley wants Eddie's help, but seeing his dismal life style he also wants to help him to stop "wastin away." The gangster subplot that reunites the two brothers involves Lena (Maggie Lacey) a tough waitress with a soft spot for Eddie, Wally Plyne (Jay Duckworth) a bouncer with a passion for the waitress and two bumbling gunmen (Erik Steele and Deron Bayer) determined to get hold of Turley's suitcase full of stolen money.

Like Truffault, but in different ways, Corley dips deeply into his own bag of directorial tricks to play out his version of this epic about art and greed, love and lust, family ties and the past that pulls us even when we're determined not to be pulled back. The scenery is minimal, the present is interpersed with flashbacks, actors move throughout the theater and violence is always ready to flare up. The lengthy soliloquies serve as his opera's arias and a piano player perched high above the stage provides the musical leitmotif. The highly stylized staging is in many ways reminiscent of Corley's previous Unicorn production, Quillls (Quills Review).

While some might find the poetic tone and the unrelieved by humor operatic flavor a bit more artsy to meet their expectation of a noir play, the language is in fact this adaptation's strongest suite. The blend of hard-boiled noir dialogue that fairly bursts with catchy metaphors and similes and poetic expressions of inner feelings and savvy observations on life account for the surge of reprints and studies of the work of some of their prolific "hack" authors. (Gold Medal a prime purveyor of original genre novel published many Gaddis books, including Down There -- the original title for Shoot the Piano Player).

Unlike many noir stories, this one has no trench coated detective to serve as narrator and philospher, so here everyone gets to be poet and philosopher. This includes the play's standout performance by John Cooper as the gangster brother Turley Lynn. Cooper is in full command of his role and has that South Jersey accent down pat, using it to equally good effect when talking tough or waxing philosophical. Maggie Lacey is powerful both as Lena the Harriet's Hut waitress and Teresa, Eddie's first wife.

The title character is a rolled-into-one Rick and Sam of another film classic, Casablanca. And this is where we begin to miss a few beats. While Lance Williams succeeds in capturing the piano player's resolutely pained stoic stare, he fails to convey the world-weariness, the been-there-done-that toughness needed for Eddie to make a deep and lasting impression. Leslie Bandle's Harriet seems more suited to an adaptation less determined to bypass any comic sendup elements. The same is true of Erik Steele's Feathers (Steele also plays the agent who propels Eddie to Carnegie Hall) and Deron Bayer's Morris.

The scenic design by Carol Bailey is, with a strong assist from lighting designer Brian Aldous, aptly noir. The minimal furnishings and props work well. However, Mr. Corley should have trusted his actors and the audience enough not to add that gimmicky steering wheel during Eddie and Lena's ride with the two gangsters This not only contradicts the impressionistic mood but seems to beg for some real bits of humorous spoofing. Generally speaking though, the staging is excellent, from the ticking metronome to the ladder edged with light during Eddie's career rise, to the south Jersey house with its bedraggled rug and the stuffing popping out of the couch. This is the house in which they grew up, to which their drunken father brought the piano he won in a bet.

Speaking of pianos -- David Sherman the composer (the bits of Chopin, Bach and Mozart excepted) who is at that piano throughout the play's somewhat overlong two hours deserves a special ovation. His presence adds that special something of the scene in Truffault's film when Charles Aznavour encounters a young violinist emerging from the room where he is about to have an audition.

The pluses and minuses of the play aside, a caveat emptor is in order. I realize that cigarettes are integral to the atmosphere of these sort of period pieces. A reader who loved Glimmer Brothers at Williamstown wrote to complain about the cigarette smoking in that. Since it was kept to a minimum, I hadn't mentioned it. However, the smoking that goes on during this production is way over and above the call of authenticity. Combined with the overworked air conditioning on the opening night I attended, I was uncomfortable enough to almost leave at the intermission. So, be warned. If you're allergic to smoke wait for the next piano concert at Tanglewood. If you're bothered by it, but not all that much, sit in one of the last two rows.

George Walker, a Canadian playwright who has a strong following among all who appreciate plays with strong dialogue and grit, early in his career wrote a noir play (his own, not an adaptation) a review of which remains in our archives: Theatre of the Film Noir

Adapted and directed by Richard Corley
After the novel by David Goodis
Scenic Design: Carol Bailey
Costume Design: Rachel Carr
Lighting Design: Brian Aldous
Sound Design: Robert Kaplowitz
Music Composed and performed by David Sherman
The Cast
Turley Lynn/ JOHN COOPER
Feather/Woodling/ ERIK STEELE
Running time 2 hours and 10 minutes, including one 15 minute intermission
Berkshire Theatre Festival's Unicorn Theatre, Stockbridge, MA
July22-August 7, 1999; opening July 23
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on July 23 performance

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