by Michael Hollinger
Directed by Terrence J. Nolen
Primary Stages / 59 East 59th Street / (212) 279-4200

Reviewed by David Spencer

It was enough years ago that I can I think discuss it obliquely, no proper names and no specifics, without violating confidences. I had just started hanging out my shingle as a script consultant, and among my early clients was a movie company with a screenplay about musicians, set in the world of professional music. It was misguided on a number of levels—structural, dramaturgical, philosophical, etc.—but at the root, informing everything else, was this: the author was faking.

     One way or another, I've been involved with music and professional music-makers all my life, and the language of fakery, of an outsider trying to approximate what he thought musicians sounded like, when they talked music among themselves, was aesthetically not much less grating than a feedback whine. As with any professionals—the forensics folks on the CSI wheel, the lawyers in Boston Legal, the bio-researchers in ReGenesis (Canadian, but US-viewers hold onto your hats, it hits domestic syndication this fall and it'll knock your socks off)—if you're going to create drama about musicians, you have to know their language from the inside. If you don't know it from having been in the loop yourself, you have your research homework cut out for you, because approximating what lawyers call "terms of art" in any kind of native environment has to have an unforced flow, an intimacy of use, an assumption of understanding without explanation among peers. The trick to dramatizing it is to present it in such a way that it seems entirely natural, yet creates a self-defining context that an observer can pick up and perhaps even penetrate. It isn't close to being easy to do.

     Which alone would make Opus, the new play by Michael Hollinger, kicking off the new season at Primary Stages, worthwhile. But Mr. Hollinger goes even more deeply into the world of music—in this case classical music—than that, as he presents the anatomy of a renowned string quartet in all its stringently professional yet emotionally dysfunctional glory.

     Days before an important White House concert, the quartet loses its violist and leader, Dorian (Michael Laurence)—a crazed genius with the emphasis on crazed. That leaves the divorced, libidinous second violinist Alan (Richard Topol); the fussy, efficient yet uninspired first violinist Eliot (David Beach); and the peacemaker and family man, cellist Carl (Douglas Rees) having to locate a replacement fast. It surprises all of them that almost as fast as they need her, she arrives: Grace (Maria Kakkar), unbelievably fresh out of school and brilliant. Her fresh, younger energy inspires them to abandon their foolproof and familiar Pachelbel Canon in favor of Beethoven's dark, difficult and (for its time) highly experimental Opus 131. The consequences to both failure and success are enormous, and in ways that aren't always apparent on the surface. Personal and interpersonal dramas heighten the stakes.

     Another terribly difficult thing to pull off in any dramatization of professional musicianship is the playing. Unless the actors are themselves trained musicians, it's almost always awkward, because it's impossible to imitate technique that takes years to develop, let alone coordinate that imitation with pre-recorded music. And when the musicianship needs to be as high as Opus demands, there's no margin for error.

     Amazingly, director Terrence J. Nolen rises to the challenge, with a combination of subtle lighting shift (that subliminally tells the audience we're briefly leaving verite for a touch of the poetic) and a kind of "bowing choreography" that doesn't try to do all the work, and somehow emphasizes, instead, the passion beneath. It's minimalist and delicate and once the convention is established, you accept it as part of the evening's theatrical vocabulary. In part, of course, this is because nothing jazzes (forgive the phrase) an audience more than being complicit in a theatrical illusion, being asked to contribute their imagination in order to fill out the particulars of a thing only suggested. But the suggestion has to be made with unequivocal confidence and clarity; when you think about such devices afterwards, if they've been executed well, it's almost as if the production team has handed you a vessel to fill, or drawn invisible lines to articulate the blank spaces within which you're to project the unseen environment. Opus achieves this in a manner I've never encountered before, so brazenly other than actual playing, though so literal that it shouldn't work; yet it does, because the confluence of play, production and performance make you want to believe.

     And the performances are marvelous. There is as much soul and beauty in the portrayals as in the music. Out of such a near-perfect ensemble it's horribly unfair to single out any one, but I will pause to spotlight David Beach. By a small margin his is arguably the lead role, and his character's crises are compounded by the knowledge that he is only sufficient unto the task, and hasn't the spark of inspiration. Fortunately, Mr. Beach as an actor is not so limited.

     Opus is 90 minutes long, sans intermission, and if the audience response the night I attended is any indication, the easy sleeper hit of the summer. It's well-deserving of a transfer and an open-ended run, as well as a long life in the regionals. Here's hoping...

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