Wednesday, October 11, 2023

REVIEW: Riveting, imaginative "Pianist" enthralls at George Street Playhouse

by Ruth Ross

Turning a movie into a play can be tricky for a playwright. Because the former depends so much on visual, highly realistic locations, faithful transference to the stage would depend upon the use of elaborate sets involving lots of moving parts and special effects.

For her world premiere adaptation of Roman Polanski’s Oscar-winning 2002 film, The Pianist—George Street Playhouse’s first production of their 50th anniversary season—Emily Mann employs what she calls the “drama of testimony,” wherein the main character breaks the fourth wall to address the audience and recount what is happening off stage. Forced to listen carefully and use our imaginations, we experience more profoundly the events occurring onstage without being distracted by scenery and props.

The eponymous pianist in question is Wladyslaw Szpilman, “Poland’s prize pianist” and a composer of classical and popular music who spent two years hiding from the Nazis during World War II. Basing her script on Szpilman’s memoirs and hours of interviews with his widow and son, Mann examines the actions and motivations of this scion of a cultured Warsaw Jewish family forced to hide in silence after his parents, two sisters and a brother are rounded up and sent to Treblinka where they were murdered 15 minutes after arrival.

From September 23, 1939, when the Nazi bombing of the city starts to January 19, 1945, when Warsaw is liberated, we follow Szpilman’s trajectory from concert pianist famous for his Polskie Radio performances to ghetto café pianist to hunted, haunted musician who, hiding in in the German quarter of the city (“in the belly of the beast”) and unable to play a real piano, “practices” his repertoire silently, moving his fingers over an imaginary keyboard and hearing the melodies in his head.

The plot of 
The Pianist unfolds on what is essentially a bare stage designed by Tony Award-winning Beowulf Boritt: Backed by stone wall at first and populated by seven chairs and a piano stool, this simple set morphs into something barer yet more menacing as time passes. In the opening scenes, the family members move the chairs around to simulate various rooms in their house, but once the family is deported, the chairs disappear, and the slight crack in the bottom of the stone wall starts to widen and break, revealing smoke from explosions, searchlights, ghetto walls and, finally, the ruined city of Warsaw, bombed to the ground by Wehrmacht planes.

Emily Mann has cast ten very talented actors to tell her tale. Over the course of 100 minutes, we get to know Wladyslaw’s family quite well. As Szpilman’s violinist father, Austin Pendleton conveys the almost comical optimism of an artist who, in the face of Nazi occupation, expects the Americans to arrive and end the war very soon, while his mother, played with fanatical cheerfulness by Claire Beckman, only wants to talk about music and books even as she faces deportation. Wladyslaw’s siblings, the activist writer Henryk (a fiery Paul Spera), lawyer Regina (a stoic Arielle Goldman) and pianist Halina (a naïve Georgia Warner) cope with the changing circumstances as best they can.

But it’s Daniel Donskoy as Wladyslaw Szpilman who commands center stage every minute of the play and who involves us in his declining circumstances. Elegant, with slicked back hair and wearing a three-piece suit, Donskoy turns in an electric portrayal of a complicated man. His dignity is palpable, even as he starves and is reduced to playing his beloved piano noiselessly. Donskoy’s boyishness evident in the talkback that followed the performance really highlighted a talent at transforming himself into an urbane, cultured musician onstage. Above all, his piano playing is very convincing; at the talkback he said that his grandmother thought he played quite well, and she was his teacher!

Charlotte Ewing (the piano tuner’s daughter Magda), Jordan Lage (the Jewish policeman Jaworski and others), Robert David Grant (Majorek and others) and Tina Benko (Janina and others, left) provide superb support, turning in polished performances in minor roles.

In a production so spare of visuals, sound and lighting play major roles. Co-sound designers Mark Bennett and Charles Coes are to be commended for transporting us to war-torn Warsaw, from the sound of a horse drawn carriage to bombs to the noise made by crowds at the Umschlagplatz waiting to board the trains to what they suppose are labor camps to, above all, the sound of music—real and imagined—produced whenever Wladyslaw plays the piano. S. Katy Tucker’s projections enhance the setting, which is lit atmospherically by designer Japhy Weideman. Linda Cho’s costumes and Charles G. LaPointe’s hair design further reinforce time and place and are appropriate to the characters wearing them. Fight director Rick Sordelet once again gets his actors to simulate violent physical contact very convincingly. The original score by Iris Hond heightens the tension.

Onstage at George Street Playhouse, 
The Pianist transcends the cinematic experience of 2002 through testimony delivered directly and intimately by a sympathetic narrator. His telling the German soldier who finally discovers him, “If I stop playing, I stop living,” reveals the power of art—in this case, music—to feed the human spirit and keep it alive in the direst of conditions.

Wladyslaw Szpilman remained in Poland after liberation, resuming his career on Polish radio and composing hundreds of songs and many orchestral pieces before he died on July 6, 2000, in Warsaw. In her stage adaptation, Emily Mann has honored his reputation and enriched our experience by letting us get to know this interesting man and his survival of one of the direst—if not the direst—events in history.

The Pianist will be performed at the George Street Playhouse in the New Brunswick Performing Arts Center, 9 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick, through Sunday, October 22. For information and tickets, call the box office at 732.246.7771 or visit online.

Photos by T. Charles Erickson