In this Berkshire Theater Festival U.S. premiere of Ronald Harwood’s comedy about opera singers in an English home for the aged, the character played by Paul Hecht maintains, “Art is nothing if it doesn’t make you feel.” By that definition, Harwood’s “Quartet” could be called art. Unfortunately, what it’s likely to make an audience feel is embarrassment. Embarrassment that this clunky, campy script was written by the author of such good plays as “The Dresser” and “Taking Sides.” Embarrassment at all the endless sex talk. Embarrassment that much of the “comedy” is at the expense of the characters.
The production takes place in R. Michael Miller’s attractive green-and-cream living room setting, outside which is the Kent countryside. At the start, Kaye Ballard, cheerfully playing contralto Cecily Robson, is seated in a window seat listening via earphones to a new CD of an old recording of the quartet from “Rigoletto” on which she sings Maddalena. Robert Vaughn, as tenor Reginald Paget, is also in the room, reading. Enter Hecht as baritone Wilfred Bond, who proceeds to “talk dirty” to Cecily, who of course can’t hear him. Wilfred keeps up his tiresome antics throughout the play, though he’s the most life-enhancing of the four characters. Hecht also gives the most appealing performance in what is the most rewarding role, though Ballard isn’t far behind in her dizzy Margaret Rutherford-style characterization.
A newcomer is about to arrive at the home and, in the way of this manufactured script, she is the Gilda of the recorded quartet, soprano Jean Horton (Elizabeth Seal), who was once married to Reginald. He and Wilfred are, of course, the two men on the quartet recording. The four complain about growing old and about doctors. Reginald throws tantrums because he’s never served marmalade at breakfast.
Their past lives haunt them as they consider singing the quartet at the home’s annual celebration of Verdi’s birthday. We eventually learn that Jean and Reginald’s marriage lasted just nine hours because Reginald was impotent, that Cecily still lusts after well-muscled, working-class young men and that dirty-talking Wilfred was almost completely faithful to his beloved late wife.
The play might conceivably prosper if four actual well-known retired opera singers agreed to appear in it. It needs that sort of frisson. Certainly play and production bog down in Stockbridge in the second act that becomes more and more tacky as the four argue over whether they will sing the quartet. Jean adamantly says no: She eventually reveals that she lost her singing voice more than 30 years earlier. The four then decide to lip-synch the quartet. The play ends with them doing just that in opera costumes. This would be the final embarrassment.