“How will we live without a piano?” wonders a member of the music-loving Szpilman family in “The Pianist,” which is currently having its world premiere in a George Street Playhouse production at the New Brunswick Performing Arts Center. World War II has started, and living conditions for the Szpilmans and other Jews living in Warsaw is rapidly deteriorating now that the Nazis have taken over. Life as they have come to know it has basically stopped, and they are forced to sell their prized instrument in order to raise the money they need to survive.
There is much worse to come: What follows is almost unspeakably horrifying. But even without the piano — or food, or basic human decency, or many of the things he has come to expect from life — the play’s main character, Wladyslaw Szpilman, is able to keep the spirit of what the piano represents alive within himself.
Emily Mann — the former artistic director and resident playwright at the McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton, and an American Theater Hall of Fame member — directs this production, which is based on her own new adaptation of Szpilman’s 1946 memoir “Death of a City” (later re-published with the title “The Pianist”; Adrien Brody starred in the Oscar-winning 2002 movie that was also based on this book). And it is as powerful as anything I’ve seen on any stage, in a long time. I couldn’t recommend this show more highly.
Daniel Donskoy, who was born in Russia and raised in Germany and Israel, makes his United States stage debut as Wladyslaw. (He has previously done a lot of acting in Europe, and Americans may know him for playing Princess Diana’s lover James Hewitt in television’s “The Crown”). Wladyslaw is a sophisticated man, forced to scratch and claw to survive; Donskoy does a good job at showing us his basic civility even under the direst circumstances. (The character dresses formally at the start of the play, and though he loses his jacket and tie, the rest of his dress clothes remain, as if a symbol of his former life.)
Mann’s script also dictates that Donskoy play a challenging classical piano piece, Chopin’s Nocturne in C-sharp minor, onstage. I’m not a classical music expert, but his performance seemed flawless to me.
In Mann’s most imaginative touch, she has Wladyslaw and other characters (Wladyslaw’s father is a violinist) play music with “air instruments” early in the play, as if they were the real thing, though an actual piano does show up later on. It’s a stroke of genius, establishing the idea that music can live in your head even if there is no instrument available — as music does, for Wladyslaw, throughout much of the war.
Though this is very much Wladyslaw’s story, other characters are vividly sketched as well. Claire Beckman plays his mother, who lives in a state of denial regarding the war; Austin Pendleton, his father, who only wants to keep her happy. Arielle Goldman plays his older sister, a lawyer; Georgia Warner, his younger sister, who helps their mother give piano lessons. Paul Spera plays his brother, whose skills as a literary scholar are now useless but who is eager to contribute to the underground resistance.
Jordan Lage, Robert David Grant and Tina Benko plays a variety of roles, each — friends and foes who play some part in Wladyslaw’s journey. Charlotte Ewing plays, mainly, a young pianist who visits Wladyslaw, in an early scene that continues to resonate throughout the rest of the play.
Beowulf Boritt’s set design is minimal and appropriately dreary. Iris Hond composed an original score that adds a sense of elegance that underscores Wladyslaw’s refined sensibilities and his vision of a better life.
George Street Playhouse’s artistic director David Saint writes in the program that “The Pianist” is “an important cautionary tale as our society once again is threatened by strong forces of bigotry and prejudice coming back into power.” Sad but undeniably true.
Or, as Wladyslaw says at the end of the play: “After the war, I wrote down what happened, so I would never forget. Nor will you.”
“The Pianist” will definitely be on my Top 10 list of New Jersey Theater for this year. It may be even be No. 1, though it’s too early to say. But I can pretty much guarantee that no New Jersey play, this year, will have a more important message.
The George Street Playhouse will present “The Pianist” at the New Brunswick Performing Arts Center through Oct. 22. Visit georgestreetplayhouse.org.
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