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A CurtainUp Review

A Second Opinion on Opus
By Elyse Sommer

Most back stage stories revolve around people in the world of dramas and musicals. Still there have been some memorable plays revolving around classical music. Terrence McNally's Master Class and The Stendhal Syndrome, produced at this very theater and also by Primary Stages, stand out. Though string quartets dot the classical music landscape, I can't recall seeing any plays about one of these groups—until this summer when I saw a world premiere of Damian Lanigan's Dissonance at the Williamstown Theatre Festival and also the New York premiere of Michael Hollinger's Opus.

It's not surprising that the relationships of the musicians in each playwright's quartet are fraught with complexities that are exacerbated by rehearsals for a crucially important concert. After all, this isn't a concert where you expect everyone to be in synch, but a drama which calls for some problems to add tension to the rehearsals. What's remarkable is that both plays are alike, but not alike ; interestingly but quite differently staged; and both are well worth seeing and with excellent potential for productions.

Not only do Hollinger'and Lanigan create dissimilar temperamental differences and pre-concert crises for their musicians but each playwright takes his own approach to having the non-musician actors handle their instruments as they rehearse — Mozart's "C-Major Quartet, K.46" a.k.a. as the "Dissonance Concerto" for Lannigan's Bradley Quartet, and Beethoven's "Opus 130" for Hollinger's Lazarus players. The common denominator for the sole female member of each group, is that, without taking anything away from the men, both actresses I saw were outstanding young performers.

It was interesting to see both these plays within a short time. If both were playing at the same time in the same city or town, it would be hard pressed to make an either/or choice. Seeing either one would be enhanced by a prior or follow up reading of Vikram Seth's novel An Equal Music: An Equal Music- Paperback edition.
What is the definition of a string quartet? — Carl
Of course, it sounds better in German. — Elliot
One good violinist, one bad violinist, one former violinist, and someone who doesn't even like the violin.— Carl
The above quotes from Opus are spoken as a joke by members of the Lazara String Quartet during an interview with an unseen reporter. It becomes apparent soon enough that the joke has a meaningful subtext. Michael Hollinger's entertaining play considers the tug of war between those with visionary brilliance and those with practical oversight. At its most enjoyable, Opus reflects the unique and eccentric individualism as well as the complimentary integrity of its musically-gifted characters.

The play is structured as a musical composition. The dialogue has the texture and tempi of harmonic and dissonant solos, duets, trios as well as the point counter-point interplay of the ensemble. Yes, it is pretentious, but oh so cleverly conceived. Opus resonates in every measure from the playwright's training as a violist, his affection for string quartets and his respect for the uncompromising artistry that chamber music playing demands.

We see the players for the first time in an opening tableau vivant, their bodies immobile but with their instruments and bows poised for playing. The "Alla Danza Tedesca" movement from Beethoven's Opus 130 can already be heard. The players suddenly connect with the music and begin to bow expertly but without any fingering. This conceit of bowing without fingering continues smartly during the subsequent musical episodes set in various interiors in New York City, Pittsburgh and Washington, D.C. The settings are simply evoked by four wooden moveable panels, the work of designer James Kronzer.

Produced regionally at various theaters, Opus arrives under the authoritative direction of Terrence J. Nolen who was at the helm for the world premiere at the Arden Theatre Company in Philadelphia where it garnered two 2006 Barrymore Awards for Outstanding New Play and Outstanding Direction of Play (with Nolen at garnered two 2006 Barrymore Awards for Outstanding New Play and Outstanding Direction of Play. It is now being presented by Primary Stages where Hollinger's An Empty Plate in the Café du Grand Boeut premiered in 2000.

Opus provides a rewarding experience for the intelligent and discerning theatergoer, especially those who are able to respond to the stylistic wit with which Hollinger constructs a delectably nuanced plot and defines some deliberately tempestuous characters. While one or maybe two protagonists are usually more than enough to propel a plot, Hollinger has found a way to give ample opportunities for all five professionally and personally entwined characters to capture and sustain our interest. The play goes back and forth in time, each episode providing more definition and detail about the characters, their relationships and their collective past together.

The rehearsals for this quirkily defined quartet are amusingly fueled by tempers and tantrums as they strive for musical excellence. Although they are punctuated with the usual arguments about maintaining a balance between interpretation and faithfulness to the composer, it is the personal relationships that bubble to the surface.

The fictional Grammy award-winning Lazara Quartet foes into panic mode when Dorian (Michael Laurence), their emotionally unsteady but brilliant violist, takes a powder. The cause we presume is his disintegrating relationship with Elliot (David Beach), his lover and the quartet's first violinist— a self-appointed autocrat and resident denigrator/quipster.

Notwithstanding a clearly expressed and united disdain for President Bush, the quartet has been requested to play a command performance at the White House in one month. They have to find a replacement. Auditions to fill the spot have not been encouraging. Then l a very young and inexperienced Grace (Mahira Kakkar), fresh from the conservatory, blows them away when she joins them in Bartok's Second String Quartet (only the last few notes are heard). She not only impresses Elliot, but also the cellist Carl (Douglas Rees), who is contending with re-occurring cancer, and violinist Alan (Richard Topol), a divorcee who is immediately beguiled by her charm and ability.

Impressed by Grace's ability, they decide to replace the familiar Pachelbel Canon with the more demanding and longer Beethoven's Opus 131. The personal issues that plague the missing Dorian and prompted his breakup with Elliot are filtered into the action. These include the gift and ownership of a rare and valuable violin and viola built as a pair that came with a proviso that they rename the quartet. The players are focused on the important date. The atmosphere is charged with the growing tension, anxiety and doubts about being ready for a performance that will be televised. We, of course, take relish in their back-stage allegro vivace bickering and bantering that presages a climactic surprise and a resolution that is a corker.

While Laurence conveys Dorian's neurosis with alternating rage and frustration; Beach, bellows out Elliot's derisive but funny bon mots; Topol blithely wallows in Alan's romantic immaturity; and Rees touchingly sublimates his fear of dying. It is Kakkar's Grace, who becomes the play's most arresting artistic force and radiantly attractive character. A native of India, Kakkar made a wonderful impression two seasons ago in Christopher Durang's Miss Witherspoon, (review) and makes an even greater one as the delightfully conscientious beauty with a bow. She is as vital and as indispensable to the ensemble as the pre-recorded music performed by the Vertigo String Quartet. One can only hope that Opus will have a longer life in New York than this limited engagement.

By Michael Hollinger
Directed by Terrence J. Nolen
Cast: David Beach (Elliot), Mahira Kakkar (Grace), Michael Laurence (Dorian), Douglas Rees (Carl) and Richard Topol (Alan)
Set Design: James Kronzer
Costume Design: Anne Kennedy
Lighting Design: Justin Townsend
Sound Design: Jorge Cousineau
Produced by Primary Stages in association with Jamie DeRoy
Running Time: 1 hour 30 minutes with no intermission
Primary Stages at 59E59 Theaters (between Park and Lexington); 212/ 840 - 9705
Performances: Tuesday at 7 PM; Wednesdays through Friday at 8 PM and Saturdays at 2 PM & 8 PM. Sunday matinees 7/29, 8/5 & 12 at 3 PM and Wednesday matinees on 8/15, 22, 29 at 2 PM.
Tickets: $60
From 7/24/07 to 9/01/07; opening 8/07/07
Reviewed by Simon Saltzman at 08/3 press preview
Leonard Maltin's 2005 Movie Guide