Grace Note

Maria Callas died a hasty death in the short-lived West End production of "Master Class," and the old girl goes down once again, this time alongside Joan Sutherland, in the infinitely inferior "Grace Note." The two divas are the object of extensive discussion in London-based Australian writer Samuel Adamson's new play. But the main question on most people's lips is bound to be, "When does the play end?" For all the musicality of its title, "Grace Note" is consistently off-key.

With:
Cast: Geraldine McEwan (Grace), Holly Aird (Ellie), Jonathan Cullen (Daniel), Emma Amos (Jennifer), Neil Stuke (Jack), Matthew Rhys (Nick).

Maria Callas died a hasty death in the short-lived West End production of “Master Class,” and the old girl goes down once again, this time alongside Joan Sutherland, in the infinitely inferior “Grace Note.” The two divas are the object of extensive discussion in London-based Australian writer Samuel Adamson’s new play. But the main question on most people’s lips is bound to be, “When does the play end?” For all the musicality of its title, “Grace Note” is consistently off-key.

The play, and Dominic Dromgoole’s lumbering production of it, are among the unhappiest surprises so far of this theater year, and they don’t say much for Dromgoole’s present perch as new-play director of Peter Hall’s inaugural Old Vic regime. Last year, writer and director teamed up memorably on “Clocks and Whistles” at Dromgoole’s previous address, the Bush, finding a Christopher Isherwood–like resonance in a contemporary London menage a trois. The new play includes a “Clocks” actor (the ever-cocky Neil Stuke) though none of its faintly sinister wit. About the only positive spin one can put on the occasion is that its run is too short (the play closes July 28) to do anyone’s career lasting damage.

The evening seems intended as a star vehicle for Geraldine McEwan, here cast as a Sutherland-obsessed mother of three in the early stages of Alzheimer’s Disease. As the titular Grace, McEwan is meant to suggest a modern-day Lucia di Lammermoor. Instead, her appealingly nasal purr and Cheshire cat demeanor are about as un-operatic as one could imagine: The actress projects sweet-faced guile, not the “mad scene” theatrics of which her character dreams.

The central miscasting, coupled with inaudibility, are among the problems of a staging that looks astonishingly tentative, as if Dromgoole were unsure how to expand his real skills in a 100-seater to an auditorium 10 times the Bush size. On Paul Andrews’ makeshift set, crudely lit by Howard Harrison, the actors plod through a play containing hints of “The Substance of Fire” and “The Piano Lesson” without being half as good as either. While Grace drifts in and out of reality, drinking water from a vase and brewing tea with detergent, her grown children spar and bicker, focusing attention on a 19th-century heirloom cello that they may or may not sell.

Twins Daniel (Jonathan Cullen) and Jennifer (Emma Amos) bear the scars of having had music shoved upon them, even if she now works as a book editor while he tends a gay bar. Stuke’s laddish, outspoken Jack provides better company for Mom, though her affections fall on the resident outsiders with whom she claims a rather wayward empathy: Daniel’s Australian wife, Ellie (Holly Aird), whom he married in order to grant her a work permit, and his young Welsh boyfriend, Nick (Matthew Rhys), whose musical skills extend to strumming “Stairway to Heaven” on the guitar.

Grace’s fierce attachment to Australia might suggest a meditation on a woman caught between two cultures, but Adamson’s writing is as scattered as his heroine’s increasingly addled brain. As the play nears its close, virtually nothing adds up: not Grace’s cruel face-off with her daughter, nor the strained Lucia parallels, nor (especially) her return to Australia and back in a week (!) capped by a remarkably cheesy scene of mistaken death. Perhaps one should be grateful for the refusal of “Grace Note” to take the lachrymose way out, though by that point the exit may be the only destination on theatergoers’ minds.

Grace Note

Production: LONDON A David Mirvish presentation, in association with Bill Kenwright, of a Peter Hall Company production of a play in two acts by Samuel Adamson. Directed by Dominic Dromgoole. Sets and costumes, Paul Andrews.

Crew: Lighting, Howard Harrison; sound, Simon Whitehorn. Opened, reviewed July 7, 1997, at the Old Vic; 1,067 seats; $ :19 ($ 32) top. Running time: 2 HOURS, 30 MIN.

With: Cast: Geraldine McEwan (Grace), Holly Aird (Ellie), Jonathan Cullen (Daniel), Emma Amos (Jennifer), Neil Stuke (Jack), Matthew Rhys (Nick).

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