"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
These 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 tempo of harmonic and dissonant solos, duets, and 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 it demands.
We see the players for the first time in an opening tableau vivant. 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 that take place 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. It garnered two 2006 Barrymore Awards for Outstanding New Play and Outstanding Direction of Play (with Nolen at the helm) when it received its world premiere at the Arden Theater Company in Philadelphia. It is now being presented by Primary Stages, where Hollinger’s play "An Empty Plate in the Cafe du Grand Boeuf" 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, "Opus" finds 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. The fictional Grammy award-winning Lazara Quartet is in panic mode when Dorian (Michael Laurence), their emotionally unsteady but brilliant violist, takes a powder. The cause we presume is his disintegrating relationship with his lover, the quartet’s first violinist, resident denigrator/quipster Elliot (David Beach).
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 until 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.
They are so impressed by Grace 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 come with a proviso that they rename the quartet. 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 resolution that is a corker.
While Laurence conveys with alternating rage and frustration Dorian’s neurosis, 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, as 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 farce "Miss Witherspoon" 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" is rewarded with a longer life in New York than this limited engagement.
"Opus," limited engagement ends on Saturday, September 1, Primary Stages at 59E59 Theaters (59th Street between Park and Lexington). $60. 212-840-9705.