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Quartet by Elyse Sommer
It's my opinion that performing again, albeit once a year,a to an audience of our fellow residents, to members of staff, the odd visitors, is a way of reaffirming our existence
---Reggie, trying to persuade a former diva, to help him and two other old opera stars to reprise their triumphant "Quartet" from Rigoletto as part of the annual Verdi birthday celebration at the retirement home where they and other former musicians are living out their lives now filled with more aches, pains and regrets than curtain calls.
Paul Hecht and Kaye Ballard
(Photo: Richard Feldman )
This bittersweet comedy is about a quartet of retired opera singers and the "Quartet" from Verdi's Rigoletto that marked a highlight of their long ago and mostly forgotten careers. The play seems to fit right in with the trend towards welcoming senior citizen populated plays like the current Broadway revival of Mornings at Seven -- especially if the actors of a certain age are well known. All members of the cast are seasoned actors, and two, Robert Vaughn and Kay Ballard have instant name recognition via starring roles in TV serials -- he as the Man from U.N.C.L.E) and she by way of Mother-In-Law. Quartet's playwright, Ronald Harwood, is also a well-known old-timer, his The Dresser, was a hit in London, New York and as a film.

The four actors do a fine job in tapping into the humor of their characters as well as the pain of old age generally and its effect on artists down on their luck in particular. In the final analysis, however, Quartet doesn't tug forcefully enough at your heartstrings to fully convey the power of its theme -- the celebration of the human spirit. Its plot is, to put it mildly, slight. I don't usually give away the ending of a play, but the conceit of the karioke-à-la-Verdi finale is so transparent that it won't surprise anyone.

Since Quartet is a current play (1999), and this its American premiere, I'd like to be able to compare it to another opera-related play by a contemporary playwright, Terrence McNally's masterful Master Class about Maria Callas. However, while Callas gets mentioned and the time is the present, Quartet, never rises above being charming and sweet. It is derivative to the point of feeling like a revival. Even more than the already mentioned Mornings at Seven (an earlier version of which Quartet director Vivan Matalon helmed), it brings to mind the 1999 revival of Noel Coward's Waiting In the Wings which was also set in a home for old-time performers and relied on the arrival of a character who causes everyone to examine their identities and relationships to stir the dramatic pot.

The new arrival in the sunny music room that's the bailiwick of three of the "elites" of Harwood's senior residence, is a diva named Jean (Elizabeth Seal). Like Cecily (Kaye Ballard), Wilfred (Paul Hecht) and Reggie (Robert Vaughn), Jean's operatic success is past history. Her only source of income is the occasional small royalty from a recording, such as a recent re-issue of Rigoletto in which she and the other three starred. But, as Jean's entry into the lives of her former colleagues seeds the dream of their reprising their famous "Quartet" at the home's annual Verdi birthday celebration, it also sets off painful memories of her all-too-brief marriage to Reggie. As the ensuing memories of personal and professional glories and disaster are unspooled, the operatic-has-beens get a chance to reveal sides of themselves besides the eccentric characteristics by which they are defined. Unfortunately, these revelations never generate much feeling, probably because the playwright makes his characters triggers for his laugh lines and thus single adjective types -- ditsy Cissy, cantankerous Reg, sex-obsessed Wil, embittered Jean.

Speaking of those laugh lines, some are very good indeed. While both Ballard and Vaughn get off some very funny stuff -- like his going ballistic whenever he sees the woman who denies him his breakfast marmalade, and Ballard's falling asleep in the middle of a sentence, it is Paul Hecht who makes the connection between joke and deeper context. There are numerous examples as when he counters Jean's argument that she is a different person today: "No, you're not. Nor are we. We've aged, that's all. And it happened so fast we didn't have time to change. In spirit, I'm the same lovely lad I always was. I just happen to be trapped in a cage made of rusty iron bars.". The actress at the other end of this riposte, Elizabeth Seal, does her best with the least sympathetic part but she somehow lacks the required grandeur of a grand diva.

R. Michael Miller has created a cozy music room, complete with portraits of Verdi and Wagner, which Ann G. Wrightson has flooded with enough sunlight to suggest a ray of hope in these diminished but not finished lives. Berkshire theater goers who, like Broadway audiences, tend to be close in age to the characters they're watching will have plenty of "that's me" moments, especially in all those references to forgetting things. And so, maybe this will make them forget Quartet's weaknesses and remember only its brighter moments.


Author: Ronald Harwood
Director: Vivian Matalon
Cast: (alphabetical order): Kaye Ballard, Paul Hecht, Elizabeth Seal and Robert Vaughn
Scenic Design: R. Michael Miller
Costumes: Tracy Christensen
Lights: Ann G. Wrightson
Sound: Phillip Scott Peglow
Répétiteur: Alan Filderman
Berkshire Theatre Festival/Unicorn Theatre, Stockbridge, MA. 413/298-5536 www.berkshire
Performances: July 9, 2002-July 27, 2002; opening July 10th
Mon-Sat at 8pm, Thursdays at 2pm and Saturdays at 3pm -- $28-$50
Running time: 2 hours, plus one 15-minute intermission
Reviewed by Elyse Sommerbased on July 10th performance
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