The real dissonance in “Dissonance,” Damian Lanigan’s new chamber music play at the Falcon, is between phoniness and truth – which, as it turns out, means the difference between a thoroughly bogus first act and a more persuasive second half. The script needs a lot of work before its characters will become flesh-and-blood artists living in and for their music, but in the meantime Crispin Whittell’s stylish production makes for a not unsatisfying evening.
Daniel Gerroll amply possesses the imperious intelligence required for James Bradley, a once-promising violin soloist now wrapping up 10 years with a string quartet bearing his name.
When we meet him, change is in the air. Stiff-necked young second violinist Hal (Peter Larney) wants to feel his oats as a group leader. Cellist Beth (Elizabeth Schmidt) is thinking of merging classical repertoire with a contemporary sound, once celebrated rock star Jonny (Jeffrey Cannata) ambles by to find out how the other half plays – itself not the most plausible of plot developments.
As James’ precious vision of four bows moving as one begins to recede, his own past career disappointments surface to haunt him. Gerroll handles all of this with poignant aplomb.
But if cracks in a foundation are going to register, the foundation has to be solid to begin with, and Lanigan makes it simply impossible to believe these four have been making music together for 10 years. They share no memories; their conversations lack texture and history. Though milquetoasty violist Paul (Skip Pipo) hints at a bond with James (its specifics are withheld until later), Hal and Beth seem to have just met the maestro this morning.
An opening argument about Mozart carries no sense of weary ground the group has covered a thousand times. Worse, James’s nonstop string of snotty bon mots and personal invective is untempered with respect for anyone else’s musicianship, begging the question of why Hal and Beth have tolerated him all these years. (Gerroll seems to want to suggest that respect, but the material defeats him.)
Francois-Pierre Couture’s polished-wood set lends a burnished warmth to the proceedings under Nick McCord’s delicate lighting. But after an hour of James’s posturing, and chamber music fun-facts ladled out as if designed to instruct a youth audience, you may find yourself bolting for the exit.
Nevertheless, sticking around is rewarded. Out of the blue, James starts demonstrating a little humanity. (Did someone get through to him during intermission?) The viper will turn, but for a time he connects with his colleagues and with us.
Then Jonny favors Beth with a lovely Lanigan/Warren Malone ballad on solo guitar, the show’s first unplugged sound. As a hard rocker Cannata has been a tad pallid, but in this James Taylor mode he brings a genuine musical passion onstage for the first time in the evening. He and Schmidt click, finally jump-starting the authenticity and bringing the play to life.