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A CurtainUp Review
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.