The Pianist

The world premiere of Emily Mann’s theatrical adaptation of Wladyslaw Szpilman’s memoir, The Pianist, opened at George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick last weekend and will run through October 22. Directed by Mann, the show has an original score by Iris Hond.

The Pianist is Szpilman’s recounting of the annihilation of the Jews of Warsaw, and how he—a leading young Polish pianist and composer—survived. He had many dark days, but his music both consoled him and inspired him to keep living.

Why now? You may recall that Tony Award-winning Mann’s career has emphasized social justice, through such works as Having Our Say and Gloria: A Life. Szpilman’s story is, of course, a cautionary tale, and taking it on now is a timely move, as surveys show the Holocaust receding in public memory and as anti-semitic rhetoric and attacks are on the rise. It’s dangerous to ignore those past lessons, when around the world extremist leaders grow increasingly prominent. Who might their net targets be?

A terrific cast has been assembled for this production, including Russian-born actor Daniel Donskoy, who makes his American stage debut as Szpilman, bringing both passion and intelligence to the role. I couldn’t take my eyes off him. In Szpilman’s nuclear family are his father (played by Austin Pendleton), mother (Claire Beckman), sisters Regina (Arielle Goldman) and Halina (Georgia Warner), and brother Henryk (Paul Spera).

Henryk can’t stop warning his family about fascism’s deadly implications, as the dark cloud descends on Warsaw. The parents don’t want to hear—or believe—it. Much like Szpilman, his father loses himself in music, almost obsessively playing his violin, but bit by bit, the ability to maintain the illusion of normalcy or that it can ever be regained, disappears along with the city’s food supply.

Several other actors—Charlotte Ewing, Jordan Lage, Robert David Grant, and Tina Benko—take on multiple roles as resistance fighters, people who try to help Szpilman or not, and Nazis. The play’s short scenes build and deepen Szpilman’s despair, as the whole is knitted together by the piano score of Iris Hond, which combines her original music, classical pieces, and Szpilman’s own work.

Anyone who needs evidence of the significance of this production need only read the biographical sketch for actor Claire Beckman, which concludes with her gratitude to Emily Mann for including her in this work of art “and by extension my great grandmother Anna Frankova Pickova, murdered in Terezin in 1943.”

The Pianist is on stage at the New Brunswick Performing Arts Center. Tickets available here or by calling 732-246-7717.

Bathing in Moonlight

Bathing in Moonlight

Hannia Guillen & Raúl Méndez, photo by T. Charles Erickson

Thirteen years ago, McCarter Theatre’s artistic director Emily Mann and playwright Nilo Cruz teamed up to present the premiere of his Pulitzer Prize-winning Anna in the Tropics, and their new collaboration—the world premiere of Bathing in Moonlight—is terrific! On stage 9/16-10/9.

In today’s Miami, three generations of a Cuban family are exiled. The widowed grandmother Martina (Priscilla Lopez) has early dementia and feels she’s never found her place in America; daughter Marcela (Hannia Guillen) is desperate to hold the family together in tough economic circumstances; and granddaughter Trini (Katty Velasquez) is an assimilated American teen, bent on a career in marine biology. Two men disturb the stability of this affectionate home.

Marcela’s brother Taviano (Frankie J. Alvarez) is away, studying to become a doctor, which may finally solve the family’s precarious finances. Her beloved piano was sold to help pay for his education, but he’s been out of touch for two years. When he returns, his resemblance to his father discomposes the already confused Martina. Worse is the news he gives Marcela—he’s failed his medical exams.

The other man in their lives is Father Monroe (Raúl Méndez), a dedicated and sympathetic parish priest. He lets Marcela play the piano at the church and, attuned to the family’s poverty, lends her money to cover their rent. Marcela finds him attractive in an unattainable way. However, the attraction is mutual, and difficult choices loom.

Director Mann considers Cruz “one of the great poets of the American theater, akin to Tennessee Williams,” and certainly in this play, the poetry, humor, and humanity in these simple situations shines through. Cruz thinks of his works as musical compositions, with each character an instrument contributing to the whole. Their speech contains Spanish rhythms, and even the three levels of Cuban accent create a chord, with the abuela’s accent the strongest, Marcela’s medium-strength, and the granddaughter’s almost disappeared.

The role of Father Monroe is the U.S. stage debut for Mexican actor Raúl Méndez, and he is powerful in it. From the opening when he charms the audience with a sermon about inclusion, his every gesture and expression is pitch-perfect. He’s a stand-out in a strong cast. Lopez and Velasquez imbue the aging grandmother and sprightly granddaughter with personality and verve. Cuban Alvarez in the dual-role of father and son expertly plays two generations. The most opaque character is Marcela, oddly, and I think that’s the play, not Guillen’s performance. Marcela is surrounded by people with so many needs, and so accustomed to putting those needs first, it’s hard for her to come into her own.

Charles Isherwood in the New York Times was ungenerous in his review, saying, “the Catholic Church’s strictures on the priesthood (no women, no marriage), . . . which even many Catholics consider ludicrously out of step with today’s world — have been fodder for debate in the popular media for years,” but this is a narrow interpretation. The play unfolded against the backdrop of Father Monroe’s opening sermon about including “the other,” about how we shouldn’t construct walls to keep people out, but to bring them in. To me, that was (alas!) as relevant to 2016 as to 1716 or to 1139, particularly for our Latino brethren.

The play, which received an Edgerton Foundation New Play Award, raises interesting high-level questions about faith, orthodoxy, exile, and love across generations, beautifully staged and acted—well worth the trip to Princeton!

McCarter has prepared a show website rich with information. Call the box office at 609-258-2787 or visit