In his plays — among them “An Empty Plate in the Cafe du Grand Boeuf,” “Incorruptible,” “Tiny Island” and “Tooth and Claw” — Michael Hollinger often takes on exotic locales and global issues. In “Opus,” he finds success closer to home. Trained as a classical violist, he can write about chamber music from the inside, giving us a glimpse into the tense, symbiotic life of a world-renowned quartet.
The Lazara Quartet has played together for years. When Dorian (David Whalen), the most gifted and least stable of the four, finally goes berserk, the other three agree to fire him. But since the quartet is expected to play at the White House in three days (with 25 million tuning in on TV), they need a brilliant replacement instantly.
Several good-but-not-good-enough candidates later, a young woman turns up who dazzles them with her first read-through of a Bartok piece. Grace (Erika Cuenca) is hired on the spot.
Alternating between rehearsals and flashbacks, each character has a monologue: We meet the unlikable, domineering Elliott (Patrick McNulty); sensible family man Carl (Douglas Rees), who hates arguing and is battling cancer; and genial, lonely Alan (Greg Wood), the least temperamental of them all and probably the closest to a spokesman Hollinger has in the play.
Their self-revelations are interesting, but more narrative than theatrical. The play works best when it imitates the music at its heart, when the quartet’s voices are woven together in dramatic scenes rather than singled out — the final monologue, especially, compromises the premise of collaboration, the feeling of losing “all awareness of who’s who, and there’s just music.”
The dialogue in “Opus” is most intriguing when it reveals the eccentric passions of lives committed to music: the big loud debate over bar eight — should it be played with or without a crescendo; soaking fingers in scalding water on winter mornings to keep the blood flowing; the allure of the viola’s “dark, chocolate sound” to a 9-year-old girl.
This, we feel, is the real stuff, revealing the peculiarities of these people rather than their ordinariness. Of course, great musicians are human like everybody else — they get divorced, they get sick, they own cats — we know about that. What we want to know is how they are different.
This ordinariness seems both a function of script and a function of the acting. Dorian, we’re told, is a terrifying visionary who channels Mozart, although he seems relaxed and pleasant enough. Grace, very young and sweet, seems oddly unfazed by her sudden success and acceptance into a group of fairly famous middle-aged men. All four personalities seem too tame, too lacking in fanaticism; when we finally see (rather than just hear about) some intensity, it is in the play’s unlikely conclusion.
The sparse set — a handsome wall of wood, reminiscent of contempo concert halls — works to highlight the music-making rather than visuals, although the flashbacks entail too many chairs being lugged on and off the stage.
Director Terrence J. Nolen, directing his sixth Hollinger premiere, solves the crucial problem: how to have the actors, who are not concert-level musicians, play their instruments. Their movements, precisely choreographed to music pre-recorded by the Addison Quartet (seniors at Curtis Institute of Music), create a remarkably convincing illusion.