Ronald Harwood’s “Quartet” doesn’t boast the most original characters or dilemmas. Personalities of the kind Harwood draws inhabit many a play about the elderly, especially those set in retirement homes. Situations derive organically from the hand Harwood deals, but most of them ring as obvious or expected, even given the difference that the retirees being former opera stars.
Harwood is not an artist, despite his creating some stirring moments in his plays “The Dresser” and “Taking Sides.” He is a solid craftsman, so the personalities that seem so familiar and the plots that seem so typical can, in skilled hands, resonate with recognizable life and engage in pleasing ways.
Susan D. Atkinson’s cast for “Quartet” at Bristol Riverside Theater is about as deft they come. They take Harwood’s mild piece and forge it into a sweet, engaging entertainment. While it may not excite or exhilarate, it stays beautifully within its competent bounds, makes the most of the comic or dramatic opportunities Harwood grants, and spins all into a quiet but definite delight. Like some form of sophisticated cotton candy.
It’s not so much that Nick Ullett, Joy Franz, Keith Baker, and Laural Merlington pull out stops, go for laughs, and endow their characters with tics and traits that give them individuality. They smartly bring to light the nuances that reveal their characters’ cores, combining cranky and lovable features to create complete portraits. They convey the endearing, while not covering up potentially irritating attributes, and provide full, satisfying understanding of their character’s lives and achievements on and off stage.
This is no easy task. It takes a particular brand of tact and a sure knack for fleshing out a role to keep a play with relatively few high points, oodles of conversation, and little of major dramatic interest going. It takes actors who know how to lead you to care about the people they’re playing without pleading ostentatiously for your attention. And each performer has established an affectionate affinity for his or her character, and each contributes to blending together as a charming ensemble to surmount the busy but slight content of Harwood’s script.
That script builds from each of the characters knowing each other from his or her opera career. While each has a glorious past that presages the modest present, they had also performed together in a lauded production of Verdi’s “Rigoletto,” In fact their quartet in Act III has been called one of 20th century British Opera’s most memorable moments. Now they are willing to recreate it for a gala for the home.
Harwood isn’t a slouch. He provides several plot wrinkles. One of the singers, a diva (Franz) whose arrival is eagerly awaited at the top of “Quartet,” was a major international star whose relegation to a home seems daunting. Especially once we learn she is among the three whose residence is subsidized by charity. The diva was once married to the tenor (Ullett). The bass (Baker) was known for his womanizing and says and recounts things that would have him excoriated via social media today. The contralto (Merlington) faces the onset of dementia, frequently thinking people she hasn’t seen in what could be a matter of hours just returned from her childhood home, India. The dementia is serious because the home is notorious for sending the more addled to nursing facilities. It is to Merlington’s credit we truly worry about her and don’t want her committed to a state hospital.
As noted, Atkinson’s cast nimbly weaves these details into their characters and the fabric of Harwood’s play. Their adroit precision is why Bristol’s “Quartet” works so well. Their skill provides a texture that gets the show past idle gossip about other denizens of the home and shop talk from the singers’ days on stage. It also covers clumsy moments, such as when Harwood seeks melodramatic mileage from the diva speaking about her marriage to the tenor.
Unanimously sterling as Atkinson’s troupe is, Ullett stands out, and not only because he actually sings a snippet of “Rigoletto’s” great aria, “La donna é mobile,” and does it well enough you want him to continue and hope Baker chimes in with some crooning of his own. It’s the smart and perfect notes Ullett hits in his line readings that earn him special focus. Precise humor and emotion are constants of his performance. Playing the least interesting of the characters, Ullett arrests your attention and adds depth with the telling and sensitive pitch he gives observations that in other hands might seem commonplace or matter-of-fact.
Franz has the hauteur and stage command of a great operatic soprano. She makes you take for granted her character’s stature an ability to influence anything in which she’s involved. Laural Merlington continues to impress following strong turns in Wilmington and Philadelphia last season. Her contralto has the right balance of star power and dottiness. And she looks on the money in her Maddalena costume and wig during the “Rigoletto” sequence. Baker maintains a glint as his character showers the contralto with suggestive overtures and recites the romantic exploits of his prime. Baker’s way with telling a story keeps a talky first scene from causing droopy eyelids and restless squirms.
Court Watson’s design for the retirement home is anything but dowdy or depressing. It’s downright elegant with its parallel sets of tall, narrow Palladian windows that mark the wall of the home and of the conservatory the featured quartet has chosen as its gathering spot.
Linda B. Stockton’s costumes convey the gentility and style the artists maintain in their retirement. Her flowered dresses for Merlington were especially right, and she does a good job on the frocks and doublets for the “Rigoletto” scene. Elizabeth Atkinson’s sound design is required to be especially on point, especially in the final scene, and she makes it happen. Ullett and Merlington help by being excellent lip-synchers.
“Quartet,” Bristol Riverside Theater, 120 Radcliffe Street, Bristol, PA. Through Sunday, November 19. $10 to $52. 215-785-0100 or www.brtstage.org.