For a play that talks so much about passion, “Opus” is almost aggressively devoid of it. Sure, the characters in this tale of an imploding string quartet discuss their fierce dedication to music — and the actors in the Primary Stages production certainly do scream — but Michael Hollinger’s script never succumbs to impulse. Instead, he builds the show like a sleek machine.
There’s no denying the sturdiness of the playwright’s craftsmanship, and if “Opus” were a Restoration comedy or a murder mystery — genres that revel in how pieces of a plot can fall into place — its form would be ideal. However, this play’s apparent aim is to evoke sympathy for the professionally passionate and volatile private lives of great musicians. That emotional goal chafes against the overtly cerebral construction.
Hollinger’s writing is often an intellectual game that values conceits over dramatic value. In one recurring bit, the four original members of the Lazara Quartet — who rose to fame and then fired brilliant, unstable violist Dorian (Michael Laurence) — speak directly to the audience. These monologues are supposedly excerpts from a documentary about the group, but they are also a formal exercise: The writing usually mirrors what characters say about music. For example, each man will speak a short sentence, like instruments warming up, and then all four will speak in unison, like harmony.
The approach is clever, but it slows the play, telling us nothing we can’t glean from other scenes. And the script needs to get a move on, since Hollinger delivers such obvious clues that his conclusion is visible long before it arrives.
Take Grace (Mahira Kakkar), a young violist hired to replace Dorian so the Lazara Quartet can play a White House concert. The details dropped during her audition are so strange they are like flares telling the audience what’s important. So Dorian’s mother supports the president? Bet that will be important at the White House gig. And according to the quartet’s rules, the only way someone can get kicked out is by unanimous vote of the other three? That clause will probably get used later.
Also, who doesn’t know what’s coming when, days before the big show, a character goes to see if his cancer is still in remission?
When it isn’t straining to forward the plot, however, the writing can be effortless and lovely, and most of the cast excels in these moments. A scene between Grace and second violinist Alan (Richard Topol) becomes a subtle flirtation between people who know they shouldn’t be attracted to each other. Topol especially lets longing flicker over his face before replacing it with sadness.
If all the perfs were this gentle, the production might balance the writing. However, as protagonist Elliot, the quartet’s leader and Dorian’s former lover, David Beach telegraphs his character’s fate from the moment he enters. Acting the bitchy queen, his tantrums and pursed lips steamroll over nuance, so it’s no surprise where his resentment gets him.
In interviews, director Terrence J. Nolen has said he wanted his cast to treat the script like a musical score, so maybe he encouraged Beach to be a brash, unrelenting sound. But whatever the intention, the actor’s choices only exacerbate “Opus’ ” problems.