“Autumn Canticle” is a tearjerker that doesn’t make you cry. It contains all the required moisture-squeezing elements: dying middle-aged composer, grief-stricken life partner, twenty-something lover trapped in the middle. But director Randy Brenner seems stubbornly determined to avoid sentimentality. Sex, despite brief use of the “F” word, is treated with similar reserve, and the result is a literate, well-acted play that too often discusses, rather than dramatizes, its conflicts.
Loosely based on the relationship between British composer Benjamin Britten and tenor Peter Sears, John Lowell’s character study begins in 1972, when world-famous musician Peter (William McCauley) returns home after open heart surgery. Partner David (Alan Brooks), an opera singer who has toured with Peter and sung his compositions for years (“Dissonance for the discriminating”), combines solicitous caretaking with wounding witticisms, and their young boarder, Walker (Seth Resnick), runs up against David’s battering hostility while struggling to ingratiate himself with both men.
Opening scenes are talky, and it takes a while to home in on the main dilemma — that David has slept with Walker and feels so guilty that he wants Walker out of the house. This revelation never rings true, because David expresses such tortured, suffering distaste about the whole episode that it’s difficult to imagine what physical bond pulled them together in the first place.
Once the dying Peter and the quietly conniving Walker start working on Peter’s memoirs, David’s jealousy about their collaboration gives the play momentum. In the time-honored tradition of upper-class psychological stripteases, secrets are exposed, long-withheld resentments revealed, and anger lends the last scenes their bite. The bitter final battle between Peter and David drums up excitement, although drunk, violent Peter exhibits too much howling vigor for an invalid at death’s door.
Where the production succeeds is in its depiction of encroaching age and lost goals. As the doomed Peter, William McCauley conveys the impotent terror creative people experience after their powers vanish. He strikes a painfully real emotional chord when trying to play and consistently striking wrong notes. Recalling the failure of an opera that permanently crushed his self-confidence and incentive, Peter reminds us how frail our hold is on creativity, and his despairing statement “I don’t have my voice anymore” is the evening’s highlight.
Brooks is unsympathetic at first, burdened with too many venomous one-liners. His character comes more sharply into focus when reminiscing about the early days of his love affair with Peter. In moments of quiet reflection, he offers a poignant portrait of a man who sacrificed his own musical gifts after being confronted with his partner’s greater genius.
Seth Resnick is impressive, showing layers of calculation beneath his friendly facade. Lowell’s script doesn’t give him enough to do with the story’s resolution, and the plot twist that points up his affair with David is contrived.
Andrea Housh’s lighting manages the transitions smoothly, and Keith E. Mitchell’s set establishes a properly classical atmosphere with its grand piano and such telling details as a “La Boheme” LP featuring Pavarotti. It’s too bad our main contact with classical music is visual and verbal. A recurring, sweepingly intense theme could have enhanced the emotional impact of the play.