A master class is a strange hybrid; a music lesson that’s also a form of entertainment for an audience. Terrence McNally’s new play, “Master Class,” is equally odd. It’s more a witty seminar on what makes good art than an actual play.
It’s also a character study, but a dismayingly shallow one. The idea of getting into the mind and soul of one of the century’s great artists, opera singer Maria Callas, is enticing, but the play offers us little more than tantalizing glimpses.
The setting is a concert hall, where Callas, who has since retired, has agreed to listen and critique the work of three young singers. (She gave a series of such master classes in New York in the early 1970s.) In fact, she does little listening and less critiquing; she is far more interested in discussing her own work, and her own theories of what makes a good performance, than in actually assessing the talents of her pupils.
Thus Callus, portrayed in a stunningly alert performance by Zoe Caldwell, spends a lot of time talking to the audience. This being a Terrence McNally play , the talk is intelligent and extremely witty. An artist, she informs us, must pay attention to every tiny element of her environment, even “the amount of stage dust.”
“You’re here to observe the students. Forget about me,” she instructs us. She then proceeds to make that utterly impossible, through sheer force of presence.
Caldwell’s Callas is arrogant, cruel, imperious, demanding and mesmerizing. She is firm but never shrill; she has the sense of purpose that comes from one who is utterly convinced of the rightness of her arguments. She’s as alert as a cat — and as quick to strike.
In an attempt to get beyond her public persona, McNally has Callas segue into stream-of-consciousness monologues while her female students are singing. During these moments, she recalls past triumphs and re-creates conversations with a revoltingly crude Aristotle Onassis.
These brief excursions into her psyche are powerful but unsatisfying. McNally fails to forge a connection between Callas’ life experience and her approach to art, which is what any play about an artist must do. How did she become so exacting? How did she get beyond the posturing of her peers and turn operatic acting into an art? The play doesn’t give us a clue.
“Master Class” doesn’t go anywhere dramatically; it does not build to a climax, and Callas’ admittedly fascinating character does not change in the least. What’s more, her pupils are little more than caricatures — stick figures for her to bat down with her superior intellect and instincts.
Of the supporting cast, only Audra McDonald as a terrified but talented student manages to make her character something more than a cliche.
Costume designer Jane Greenwood has provided the two female students with delightfully tacky costumes for Callas to criticize. Set designer Michael McGarty creates a minor miracle at the end of act one, when he allows us to enter Callas’ memory, transporting us momentarily to center stage at La Scala.