The premise of Terrence McNally's Master Class is a deceptively simple one. We're in an auditorium—at a university or conservatory, one imagines—in an unspecified year, the better to foster the illusion of being in the present, although clearly we are not. And that's because the instructor of the master class we're attending is famed opera diva Maria Callas (in the body of actress Tyne Daly). She enters grandly, evidences grand airs (as such artists are wont to do), and when she turns her attentions to each of the three students she will be coaching, she is by turns solicitous, impatient, awe-inspiring, compassionate and insensitive. She is, in short, the iconographic Super-Mentor figure.
I’ve seen Master Class four times before—in its initial Broadway run starring Zoe Caldwell, followed by Patti Lupone and Dixie Carter, then more recently at Paper Mill with Barbara Walsh—each of them perfectly splendid; but Ms. Daly, for me, may be the best of all. It’s a very small margin that defines “best” in such company, to be sure, but if I can define what lies in that small margin, it’s the sense that somehow Ms. Daly is channeling Callas more dangerously. I can’t say more authentically, I don’t know enough to make that assertion, nor do I have any desire to diminish the other great ladies I’ve seen in the role. I can only tell you there’s something about the centeredness and poise of her portrayal, about the physicality and general appearance, about the balance of narcissism with expertise with vulnerability that made me store away more moments, pay attention a little differently.
Of course, in a play involving other actors, not even a towering, dominating role such as Callas resonates unto itself, and the casting of the accompanist (Jeremy Cohen), the blithe yet respectful stagehand (Clinton Brandhagen) and especially, of course, the students—Alexandra Silber as a talented naïf, Sierra Boggess as a firebrand and, perhaps most affectingly, Garrett Sorenson, whose tenor voice can literally move you to tears—is also key. Their own uniqueness and the gestalt they generate, under the nuanced yet almost invisible direction of Stephen Wadsworth, are part and parcel of Ms. Daly’s performance, because for so much of the play, they are the “feed.”
Which is not to say that Master Class is a flawless play—but audiences never seem to care about the credibility lapses much, and the play is so ubiquitous a part of the American theatre scene as a show piece for a (one hopes) gifted diva that they no longer register with me, either. Like Callas herself teaching a master class must have been, it’s an indelible experience, that’s all, and never more exhilarating that it is currently.
And what else, in the long run (pun intended) need a play be?
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