While many if not most performing artists are temperamental, on the evidence of “Opus” a string quartet’s members may be the most high-strung. Scribe Michael Hollinger sees them as four leaderless individuals sawing their way toward self-expression and group harmony, in an environment of charges and confrontations: chamber music emerging from a chamber of horrors. Former violist Hollinger seems to know whereof he speaks, for despite over-the-top plotting, his fictional Lazara Quartet thrums with believability in Kyle Donnelly’s impeccably detailed, sturdily acted Old Globe arena staging.That a drama about a quartet features a cast of five already hints at the complex skein of conflicts at work within the long-established, Grammy-winning ensemble. At rise they’re auditioning to replace violist Dorian (a manically charismatic Mark H. Dold), the explanation of whose absence is one of several reveals up the author’s sleeve, some too easy to see coming, others a neat surprise. With chosen virtuosa Grace as our surrogate (Katie Sigismund charmingly progressing from intimidated novice to assured co-equal), we chart her fellow artistes’ stories encompassing survived cancer, a couple of failed relationships, two extraordinarily valuable instruments and a series of life-and-death quarrels over phrasing in Beethoven’s Op. 131. Flashbacks, both enacted live and projected as documentary video, explore the Lazaras’ past, even as present-day events drive toward a nationally televised White House appearance (a canny choice on Hollinger’s part to raise the stakes amidst all the rehearsal wrangling). Through rhythmically overlapping dialogue and expressive physicalization — even the scene changes are executed with elegance — Donnelly brings out all the suspense inherent in a team’s efforts to work through their differences and create beauty. Because the specifics are so carefully attended to, veterans of any workplace tension should readily find themselves represented here. Even a musically unsophisticated audience can appreciate the impact of a debate over an unmarked crescendo in Beethoven’s score, or the anguish of a player’s late entrance at bar 10 while the recording tape is rolling. Thesps’ dynamics parallel those of the quartet, each making a strong impression while meshing with the others (and all five mime their prerecorded music with studied finesse). Dold, and Jim Abele as the testy first violinist, make the most of their flamboyant diva opportunities, while Sigismund, Corey Brill and Jeffrey M. Bender are no less persuasive in more subdued roles. York Kennedy’s lighting effectively sets off the public and private exchanges, though poorly dressed overhead cables cast weird shadows and block some views of the video screens. It’s the only sloppiness to be found here, the kind that’d send any of the quartet’s stalwarts into a hissyfit.
James S. Copley Auditorium; 227 seats;$59 top
An Old Globe presentation of a play in one act by Michael Hollinger. Directed by Kyle Donnelly.
Sets, Kate Edmunds; costumes, Denitsa D. Bliznakova; lighting, York Kennedy; sound, Lindsay Jones; stage manager, Diana Moser. Opened March 26, 2009. Reviewed March 28. Runs through April 26. Running time: 1 HOUR, 30 MIN.
Elliot, First Violin - Jim Abele Alan, Second Violin - Jeffrey M. Bender Dorian, Viola - Mark H. Dold Carl, Cello - Corey Brill Grace, Viola - Katie Sigismund