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A CurtainUp Review
The Morini Strad

An artist is someone who is unwilling to compromise! You think I havenít asked myself how life might have been different with children? It was out of the question. My manager would have dropped me in a heartbeat. No matter - I had a gift! The gifted do not squander their time. — Erica
the Morini Strad
Michael Laurence and Mary Beth Peil
(Photo credit: James Leynse)
With The Morini Strad by Willy Holtzman, Primary Stages for the third time presents a play with a classical music background. In 2004 they staged Terrence McNally's delightful The Stendhal Syndrome (McNally had previously mined his love for classical music with Lisbon Traviata and Master Class). Three years later Primary Stages struck gold again with Damian Lanigan's absorbing Opus .

Holtzman's 2-hander, while beautifully staged and performed with commitment, isn't quite as satisfying. It revolves around the unlikely bond formed between Erica Morini, an aging, ailing and not easy to like virtuoso violinist and Brian Skarstad, a forty-something violin builder and restorer. Both characters are based on real people. Morini died in 1995 at the age of 91. Skarstad, a violin expert, is alive and the friend of Holtzman's who inspired him to turn his connection with the diva during the last reclusive stage of her life into a play.

At the heart of this odd couple relationship is a 400-year-old Stradivarius violin known as the Davidoff Strad. Besides being worth more than three million dollars, the violin which she used during her performing career, represents the essence of her life as an artist. It's the child she never had and all the other domestic pleasures she sacrificed in order not to squander her "gift."

Having heard about Skarstad's ability to make damage caused to a valuable instrument invisible, the autocratic Morini summons him to her Fifth Avenue apartment. It doesn't take long into a tea, toast and marmalade interview to make the violin maker eager to get away from this tough and confrontational woman while he's ahead. But the Davidoff Strad wins the day. For all her regai airs, Erica is convinced he's the right man for the job — and he can't resist the chance to get his hands on this magnificent instrument.

Holtzman has dramatized the factual background with sharp, often witty as well as poignantlly reflective dialogue.Casey Childs directs with quiet assurance. Mary Beth Peil and Michael Laurence use all their considerable acting skills to imbue this odd couple bonding with dramatic fireworks and genuine emotion —, initially during the closely supervised restoration. . . after Skarstad has indeed made the Strad's scar invisible abd Morini, knowing she can't take the Strad to the grave, commissions him to sell it to someone worthy and wealthy enough to buy and care for it.

For all the prickly interaction there's just so much high drama you can get out of this situation. The shift from wary partnership to something close to friendship is predictable from the moment the scarf given to Erica by Toscanini is removed from the Strad's case. The point counterpoint between her choice of the childless committed artist's life and his being torn between doing the work he loves and having a family life is not particularly revelatory. Thus the only explosive, deep in the gut dramatics come via the last movement of Erica's "life symphony."

The process of selling the once again pristine instrument continue the push-pull between Erica and Brian and ends in a surprising mystery. This is again an actual event, one that remains unsolved to this day. However, since the playwright has chosen to stay within the real story of Erica Morini and her violin's final journey, the mystery concerning the Strad becomes part of a climax adds up to a mournful, non-explosive coda about Erica's and the violin's fate.

The stagecraft goes a long way towards creating a visually dramatic environment. Neil Patel's set puts Brian's Studio and Erica's apartment side by side for easy shifts from one to the other. An upstage opening above Erica's record player allows for violinist Hanah Stuart's to activate her recorded memories of her performing her signature pieces (classical music lovers may be frustrated at hearing only snippets of the lovely Bruch "Violin Concerto No. !" and the cadenza from Tchaikovsky's "Violin Concerto in D Major"). It's subtly lit by M.L. Geiger, with Jan Hartley's projections and a few props cleverly opening up the the apartment walls to various other locations.

Good as both Peil and Laurence are, they are stuck with characters who defy being totally believable. Their coming together is intriguing but less than emotionally engaging. The violin maker is interesting mostly when he explains the art of his craft. ("Starting a violin? Itís been a little while. Whatís it like? I donít know, exhilarating. Exacting. Maybe a little how a novelist feels staring at a blank page. No, a ream of blank pages. But with the first push of the arching gouge I can hear the music in the wood. And I see the violin"). The bitter, old artist is too totally self-absorbed and nasty (she isn't just tough on her students but utterly disdains them, and even her Master Class at Mannes College is more a Me-Me-Me speech than a class). While Peil's Jackie in The Good Wife is a mother-in-law from hell but a fun to watch meanie, Erica is hardly fun —, despite some amusing tart-tongued dialogue; for example she describes her nurse's usefulness as a companion with "The woman is a conversational black hole" — unlike the colorful dinner guests of her glory days like "Jascha to dinner, Arturo, Lenny."

The Good Wife episode that ended just before this play opened was a cliff hanger. Peil's Jackie was confronted by her daughter-in-law about having bought the house she was bidding on from under her. And so, as I left The Morini Strad I found myself wondering if maybe the prosperous but not wildly rich Jackie had come into possession of the Davidoff Strad.

The Morini Strad by Willy Holtzman
Directed by Casey Childs
Cast: Michael Laurence (Brian), Mary Beth Peil (Erica), Hanah Stuart Violinist)
Set design by Neil Patel
Costume design by David C. Woolard
Lighting design by M. L. Geiger
Original music and sound design by Lindsay Jones
Projection design by Jan Hartley
Stage Manager: Sarah Melissa Hall
Running Time: 95 Minutes without an intermission
Primary Stages at 59E59 Theaters
From 3/20/12; opening 4/03/12; closing 4/28/12
Thurs 7, Fri-Sat 8, Sat 2, Wed 2 (April 11), Sun 3 (March 25; April 1 & 8)
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at 3/28/12 press performance
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