Don’t be fooled by the deceptively simple opening of playwright Laura Schellhardt’s father-daughter drama, now onstage in a TheatreWorks premiere.
Pops (the always engaging Dan Hiatt) is an electronics salesman who moonlights as a singer-pianist in a bar; in his spare time he’s composing a medley tribute to Charlie Chaplin.
His precocious 12-year-old daughter, Kiddo (an endearingly nerdy, restless Renata Friedman), just quit piano lessons, even though she knows she’s “gifted.”
Kiddo is needy, lonely and wants Pops’ undivided attention (unseen Mom is apparently otherwise engaged with her endless shrink appointments).
“Who wants to be gifted?” she whines. “I need help with like my entire life!”
But she doesn’t want to push herself beyond her comfort zone.
Pops, preoccupied with his music, is a loving dad who’s nevertheless disengaged. Tellingly, he always thinks his daughter is a year or two younger than she is.
“You get one life — of course you push yourself!” he counters, hearing all too well the proverbial tick-tock of the clock, that metronome that marks life’s passing.
To him, she’s of the “whatever” generation.
It’s a classic family conflict, infused with resonance and complexity by the pair’s shared musical talents, artistic longings and ambivalence about success — their own, and each other’s.
A third character, the accompanist (pianist-actor Brett Ryback), is Pops’ shadow self, playing the piano upstage as Pops and Kiddo mime pounding the keys on skeleton pianos downstage. It’s a nifty device that works beautifully, with Ryback also playing other roles as well.
As Kiddo ages, quite convincingly, from 12 to 30 over the course of the play, and as Pops’ life winds down all too quickly for him to ever achieve his greatest hopes, “Upright Grand” may feel heartbreaking to anyone who’s been, or has had, a father or daughter; who’s struggled with personal artistic ambitions; or who’s experienced that ugliest of demons, jealousy.
Schellhardt seems to have a deep understanding of the ways that even the most loving of kinships, and the purest of artistic passions, can cause anguish.
This is TheatreWorks’ 61st world premiere, sensitively directed by Meredith McDonough and elegantly designed by Kris Stone, with an upstage reflecting mirror, rich red carpeting and a turntable set plus buoyant musical direction by William Liberatore.
The accompanying piano music — everything from “Moon River” to Chopin and much more, including sound effects — adds texture.
The play moves toward a wrenching climax and tender denouement, beautifully limned by the three actors. It’s a deeply affecting and at times delicately comical journey.
Presented by TheatreWorks
Where: Lucie Stern Center, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays-Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays; closes Aug. 10
Tickets: $24 to $73
Contact: (650) 463-1960, www.theatreworks.org