Thursday, April 1, 2010

Musical chairs

The "Lazara" String Quartet at work in Opus. Photo by Andrew Brilliant.

Michael Hollinger's Opus (now at the New Rep through April 17) is the kind of solid new(ish) play that's just good enough that you wish it were better. What's more, you can't understand why it's not better. Hollinger is clearly a natural craftsman; he has an ear for nestling revelations in naturalistic dialogue, and a neat feel for how to punch up a scene. And he clearly knows the milieu of his play, the world of the world-class string quartet (Hollinger was trained as a violist before he turned to the theatre).

But why is his play nearly thirty minutes shorter than it should be (an unusual complaint, surely)? Why does the playwright pick up, then drop, a slightly-pointless framing device (now we're in a documentary/now we're not)? And why are the various hot political potatoes of the current classical music scene gingerly touched on, but never really grappled with?

You could argue that it's not fair to see through the pretty-good play that Opus actually is to the nearly-great play that it could have been (and feeling slightly cheated as a result). But I'm afraid that's kind of how the show went down for me, particularly given the drama's ridiculous conclusion (which turns on a rather unlikely bit of virtuosic versatility on the part of one musician, and in which another musician does something patently unthinkable). And I'm afraid that perception is precisely the kind of criticism the playwright should hear - because in Opus, he has played everything far too safe. Indeed, the PBS-style documentary that keeps intruding on his action only reminds us repeatedly of the audience he's tailoring his vision to (if he'd had Alan Alda pop in for a few bits of crinkly "wisdom," Hollinger might have achieved something like brilliant self-parody, but alas, no such luck).

To be blunt, in Opus we're basically stuck with a view of classical music designed for the Antiques Roadshow crowd (Hollinger has, in fact, written repeatedly for PBS). Thus the play touches on such questions as why so many gay classical musicians remain closeted, or how female players negotiate their seemingly-inevitable sexual objectification, without ever really probing the issues involved; these conflicts seem to operate like little suburban cultural touchstones (Oh, yes, gay people! And women!), with no actual salience or edge. And I really wonder why. After all, Hollinger is writing about a pretentiously "liberal" world in which women have to audition behind screens to get a job, and multi-millionaire conductors won't, or can't, discuss their obvious sexual preferences (and the success of a performer of color counts as a kind of cultural event). Opus toys with these and other explosive issues, but never really lights a fuse under any of them.

But you know, it's all good, I guess - or at least that's the feeling we get from the placid veneer of Opus, a feeling that we sense Hollinger has done a lot of clipping and pruning of his action to achieve. Thus, though the script is consistently absorbing, it's also pretty schematic. Hollinger has floated the excuse that this is because he has structured his play musically rather than dramatically, which I suppose someone with no real understanding of musical structure could possibly fall for. But viewers with more musical sophistication will find little more than a crude version of the "theme and variations" Hollinger promises, much less anything like sonata form (or any other kind of form). The script's just choppy, period.

That the individual scenes often work well, however, can't be denied, and the proto-stories that float behind the action are intriguing (and could be compelling if Hollinger gave any of them a real chance). The "Lazara" String Quartet (named for a mythical Strad-like violin-and-viola set played by its leads) is in crisis, as its violist has disappeared just weeks before a high-stakes appearance at the White House. The all-male group re-groups, however, with a new female member, who gradually discerns that her predecessor was the lead violinist's gay lover. And that he's not exactly no longer a player when it comes to the quartet's future. Meanwhile the group's lone horn dog begins to make his moves on her, while the remaining member discovers his long-dormant cancer may have returned (the quartet, as you can see, is alotted one dramatic crisis apiece).

These subplots don't so much interlace as collide, and the whole piece ends in a crash (literally), but the handsome production at the New Rep distracts us from these deficiencies with a sleek look and generally strong performances. Benjamin Evett, who was so hilarious last month in Indulgences, here essays the vanished violist of the "Lazara," a gay bad boy (named "Dorian" - get it?) who's not only a genius but also crazy, and chemically dependent (and probably something else clichéd, too). Evett does what he can, and is clearly up for anything, but Hollinger doesn't give him much that's specific to work with, and so he tends to lean on generic gay affectations and druggy, "buggy" tics. As Dorian's better (or arguably worse) half, the appealing Michael Kaye is in something like Evett's over-determined but underwritten boat, but perhaps hasn't realized he has to row it a little harder if he's going to make the script's big hairpin reversal credible. Better are Bates Wilder and Shelley Bolman as the cancer victim and the horn dog, respectively; Wilder wisely underplays his character's slow boil, while Bolman is surprisingly subtle as the group's sex-addicted, but self-aware, second fiddle. Perhaps the only nearly-weak link on this team is Becky Webber, as the quartet's female draft pick; but again, Hollinger has given her little to work with beyond generic naiveté and uncertainty. Meanwhile director Jim Petosa provides the production with a smooth sense of forward propulsion, and has drawn true ensemble playing from his quintet of actors. And the show looks smashing on Cristina Tedesco's elegant unit set.

Still, a sense of dissatisfaction lingers after the curtain falls. I'm certainly eager to hear more from Mr. Hollinger - with "more" being the operative word here. I hope in his next play this talented dramatist won't be afraid of an intermission, and won't "develop" his text into quite so polished a shell. I hope he follows his characters wherever they make take him (and us). The results may not be as publicity-friendly as Opus - but they just might make some beautiful music.