Who can resist metaphors when writing about the conflicts within a chamber music group? Certainly not Brit novelist Damian Lanigan, who crams his freshman playwriting effort, “Dissonance,” with overripe imagery, not to mention musical cliches, clunky exposition and nasty, boring or annoying characters in overly arch situations.
The play, which is premiering on the second stage at the Williamstown Theater Festival, is another theatrical entry centering on a volatile chamber music quartet. (Michael Hollinger’s “Opus” opens Off Broadway this summer.)
Lanigan’s quartet is led by imperious British snob James Bradley (Daniel Gerroll), once thought to be the world’s next great violinist and now suffering from should-have-been syndrome. The musical ensemble also includes two younger Americans, former students of James’: ambitious second violinist Hal (Thomas Sadoski), with an argumentative streak of his own; and Beth (Alicia Witt), a grounded cellist who manages to get along with everyone. The violist, Paul (Rufus Collins), passively endures James’ constant putdowns and character flaws for reasons of his own.
Play follows a series of rehearsals as the fictitious group prepares for its 10th anniversary celebration at Carnegie Hall and its long-awaited return to New York City. Too slow, says Hal. Too fast, says James. And so it goes as the musicians take time to rhapsodize about their art or themselves.
When rock star Jon (Patch Darragh) takes an interest in classical music — and Beth — in preparation for his first solo recording, some tension, sexual and otherwise, emerges as he unknowingly upsets the group’s fragile dynamic.
But it all feels contrived and inauthentic: a character and a conflict created so the playwright can muse about the bond among all musicians (“Music is not about right or wrong”), indulge in some self-criticism of classical musicians’ own field (“lullabies for rich people”) and educate the audience about chamber music via a know-nothing interloper.
The play is less variations-on-a-theme than a disconnected piece with various themes hovering about but never coming together into a satisfying whole — James’ musical midlife crisis, the challenge of control for his group, the arrival of an old mentor for the big show, professional goals vs. personal power.
These are not undramatic themes; it’s just that as written and staged, they don’t resonate. (Some of the most awkward exposition should have been cleaned up before a professional production: “Chaim Metzer, remember him?” says one in the group to another. “You ought to. He was, after all, the greatest violinist of the last century.”)
The thematic dissonance in the play is not helped by the unappealing characters and anemic dialogue. James is not the caustic wit he (and Lanigan) thinks he is — unless the point of the character is to be a bitter bore. Whether he’s making feeble viola jokes or pop-music trash talk (“Your whistle-stop tour up the devil’s rectum,” he says of Beth’s involvement with Jon), or reveling in emotional sadism and outright bigotry, the character remains simply cold, cruel and crude.
The usually solid Gerroll overdoes the plummier aspects of the role but fails to find the human touch.
Witt’s perf is wispy at best. Her stage presence lacks heft or the confidence of a character that is supposed to be knowing and self-possessed. Instead, she comes across as bland and undeserving of the adoration she somehow still generates from others. Witt does better in the romantic scenes, but even here she seems to be registering for the camera closeup.
Sadoski and Collins do well representing their more clearly defined roles, while Darragh finds a sweet naivete and sincerity as the rock star who doesn’t know a violin from a viola.