"The Competition," opening today at the Avalon 1, is a synthetically crisp, enjoyable romantic melodrama set against a background of classical music.
Writer-director Joel Oliansky inflicts ear-splitting sophisticated repartee on his characters. But he's had the happy inspiration to revive that satisfying feat of audio-visual make-believe in which actors assault the keyboard, persuading you that they are making the sounds recorded by authentic virtuosos.
Richard Dreyfuss and Amy Irving -- cast as aspiring young pianists who join four other finalists in a prestigious competition in San Francisco -- look far more convincing communing with the piano than pretending to fall in love. Of course, the music they're playing is in far better shape than the characters they're playing, and it operates at a loftier plane of emotional stimulation.
Dreyfuss, an erstwhile prodigy named Paul Dietrich, is desperately uptight. Jinxed by also-ran status throughout his long, promising youth, Paul is intent on one last mighty effort at a major competitive prize. (The apocryphal Arabella Hillman competition offers $20,000 and two years of guaranteed concert bookings to its grand-prize winner.) If he fails, he has vowed to lower his expectations, look for a steady job and ease the financial burden on his parents. The function of his mother, played by Gloria Stroock, is to remind Paul sternly that his dad's ticker may tick its last any second now.
The hero is soooo uptight, in fact, that he makes a point of snubbing the friendly overtures of Irving when she introduces herself as fellow finalist Heidi Schoonover (uh-huh). Brushing her off, Paul escapes to the men's room, stares in the mirror and tries to put himself in a dedicated trance: "You have no time for her. Anything that eats into your concentration even a little bit is no good."
The gracious, forgiving Heidi imposes no pressure on herself and ultimately chips through Paul's icy reserve. Pressure is applied by her suspicious, zinc-tongued teacher, Greta Vandemann (I'm not making up that one either), played by Lee Remick, who fears that a love affair could sap her pupil's vital competitive juices. Remick should earn an Oscar nomination for skating so elegantly over Oliansky's most slippery patches of purple prose.
For glorious example, she cautions Heidi "This is not an ashram, sweetie face! It's a battleground. That [indicating the piano] is your first husband. You marry it like a nun marries Jesus." Oy!Not since James Mason in "The Seventh Veil" and Anton Walbrook in "Red Shoes" has the artistic life known such a hyperbolic, fanatic custodian.
The longshots in the competition are Joseph Cali as a wisecracking New York street kid, Ty Henderson as a suave young black from L.A., Vickie Kriegler as a little Russian prodigy who becomes the pretext for a trifling subplot when her teacher defects, and -- my personal favorite -- Adam Stern as an amiably aloof gawk who casually does his own piano tuning, the greatest single psych-out technique in the show.
Chester B. Swiatowski and Daniel Pollack are the real pianists responsible for Dreyfuss' powerful rendition of Beethoven's Emperor Concerto and Irving's blazing follow-up on Prokofiev's Piano Concerto No. 3, respectively. There's more genuine interest in the act of classical music performance than a Hollywood movie has accommodated for a generation or so. In that respect "The Competition" is a most welcome throwback.