If Jane Austen had written plays as well as novels and had lived later in the 19th century, she might have written “Trio.” This beautiful play has many of the ingredients of an Austen novel: a brilliant heroine, a narcissistic, self-destructive husband, and a delicate romance. The only thing missing is Colin Firth.
“Trio" is the triangular love story inspired by the lives of composer Robert Schumann, his concert pianist wife Clara, and their young protégé, Johannes Brahms, as imagined by playwright Israela Margalit. Margalit, whose other career was as a celebrated concert pianist appearing with some 50 of the world’s most distinguished orchestras, accompanies her story by playing the music of Schumann and Brahms with brio and gusto.
Happily, the actors match her playing with spirited acting of their own. Bjorn Johnson, who plays a tormented, malicious Schumann, is nevertheless a sympathetic character as he wrestles with his feelings of failure (“I am not Beethoven!” he shouts) and his encroaching madness. Meghan Maureen McDonough, as Clara, remains subdued under her husband’s disparaging treatment, but relieves the pressure by playing the piano resoundingly and gloriously. And Jeremy Shranko, as the youthful Brahms, is a gallant and passionate lover that any woman would find hard to resist.
In reality, Robert and Clara had felt that passion once. Theirs was a strong connection that survived her father’s disapproval, that waited years for her to come of age, and endured the death of a child. “Trio,” however, is set later in their lives, when love seems, for her at least, to have settled into resignation. She has produced eight children in 13 years and given up what had been a sparkling career. As she notes, with both humor and reproach, “Men are like pianos: robust on the outside, but with the slightest movement they go out of tune.”
When Brahms enters the picture he is an eager acolyte being introduced to Schumann by a mutual friend, the successful violinist Joseph Joachim (Brian Normoyle). Brahms, who comes from an undistinguished background, has just completed a minor concert tour and is anxious to play one of his compositions for the man he considers “The Master.”
Schumann, impressed, tells him, “Concert tours are meant for those who can’t create. You should compose.” And he jump-starts the young man’s career by praising him extravagantly in a magazine piece.
As Brahms becomes a continuing presence in the Schumann household, he becomes something of a loving “older brother” to the children as well as a delightful diversion for their parents. This relationship reaches its zenith in a wildly exuberant dance that the four (the Schumanns, Brahms, and Joachim) indulge in in an outburst of high spirits. The music that accompanies this moment is Brahms’ “Hungarian Dance No. 1 for four hands,” played by Israela Margalit and her concert pianist son Ilann Margalit.
But as Brahms becomes more deeply involved with Clara, Joachim offers him a word of advice. “The artistic temperament can’t survive unless it consumes everything in its path,” he cautions. And Clara’s artistic temperament has been stoked since childhood by her demanding father, master piano teacher Friedrich Wieck, played magisterially by Peter Colburn.
Margalit has written a wise and powerful drama, filled with pithy comments and starchy 19th century speechifying. (Clara might be speaking for the playwright when she says, “Passion is the key to interpretation.”) Moreover, Margalit has recruited some of the best in the business to bring her tale to life: Rick Sparks, who directs with vigor, Joel Daavid, who has designed a pluperfect setting for the action, Sharell Martin, who has put together a stunning panoply of costumes, Jeremy Pivnick, who does his usual expert job with lighting, and sound designer Robert Arturo Ramirez, who intersperses Margalit’s magnificent piano renditions into the action.
“Trio" is a must-see for those who like romantic drama. For those who like immortal music. And for those who like Jane Austen.
Now having its U.S. premiere after a 5-year sold-out run in Russia and the Ukraine, “Trio” is produced here by Racquel Lehrman’s Theatre Planners, and will continue at the Lounge Theater, 6201 Santa Monica Blvd. in Hollywood, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 7 p.m. through April 10. Call (323) 960-4412 for tickets.
Cynthia Citron can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.