A theater festival devoted to Terrence McNally’s love of opera?
Why not, figures Kennedy Center president Michael Kaiser. After all, the prolific playwright’s works include “Master Class,” “The Lisbon Traviata” and “Golden Age,” a new play that takes a backstage peek at Vincenzo Bellini’s “I Puritani.”
All three of those titles are being staged during a five-week KenCen celebration of McNally’s career, appropriately billed Nights at the Opera.
Three separate casts total an economic 19 people, some of them hand-picked by a much-involved McNally, who is tweaking scripts and attending rehearsals.
Stephen Wadsworth will direct Tyne Daly as Maria Callas in “Master Class,” Christopher Ashley helms John Glover and Malcolm Gets in “Lisbon,” and Walter Bobbie will stage “Golden Age,” with a cast that includes Marc Kudisch.
McNally says he’s extremely flattered to be the subject of the Center’s prestigious multiplay spotlight, which in previous years has showcased works by Tennessee Williams, August Wilson and Stephen Sondheim.
“It’s very exciting to have three of my plays produced that were written over a long period,” McNally says. He laments that neither Williams nor Wilson lived to savor their Kennedy Center recognition.
The March 12-April 18 fest enables McNally buffs to catch all three shows during a weekend visit to D.C. In addition, Kaiser interviews the playwright before an audience March 15, while a panel of actors (including Zoe Caldwell, Audra McDonald and Richard Thomas) will discuss his art on March 22.
“Master Class” and “Lisbon” are Kennedy Center productions, while “Golden Age” is produced by the Philadelphia Theater Company (where it world-premiered last month) with support from the center’s Fund for New American Plays.
Set backstage at the 1835 Paris premiere of Bellini’s final opera, “Age” is a meditation on art from the perspective of tempestuous tenors and composers. It plays March 12-April 4 in the 320-seat Family Theater.
McNally says he has been making “helpful” changes to the play following its shakedown (Philly reviews were tepid), but has not substantially cut the three-hour running time.
Director Bobbie replaces Austin Pendleton, who helmed the premiere; no reason was given for the latter’s departure. In addition to Broadway regular Kudisch, the cast includes Jeffrey Carlson and Rebecca Brooksher.
McNally says the “Master Class” production (March 25-April 18 at the Eisenhower) finally enables him to work with Daly. A longtime admirer of the thesp, he personally invited her to play the iron-fisted Callas, who browbeats three aspiring sopranos in the play. “Tyne was the first person I thought of,” he recalls. “Thankfully she said yes.”
He explains it was Daly who recommended Wadsworth, a seasoned director of plays and opera.
“Stephen is very familiar with the world of singers, so it was an excellent choice,” McNally says. “He and Tyne have a wonderful shorthand way of working together.”
The playwright says the revival of 1989’s “Lisbon” (March 20-April 11 at the Terrace Theater) affords him the opportunity to engage in the author’s golden prerogative to tweak. In this case, that means minor changes to lines that could be sharper and more succinct — “things the average person would not notice.”
McNally hopes that when his New York theater chums visit D.C. to catch “Age,” they’ll make time for “Lisbon,” which he feels is ripe for another Gotham outing.
“And then,” he says, “I plan to spend the summer writing a new play that is just the germ of an idea right now.”