Like a diamond chip, a speck of a play like “The Morini Strad” can sparkle if it’s beautifully mounted. Primary Stages shows how it’s done in Casey Childs’ artful helming of this wispy two-hander by Willy Holtzman about an aged violinist and the young artisan she hires to restore and sell her priceless Stradivarius. More a character study than a fully articulated drama, the play takes a compassionate view of Erica Morini, the real-life musician who inspired it. And how wonderful to have violinist Hanah Stuart on stage to demonstrate the eerie genius of an authentic child prodigy.
Props rule on Neil Patel’s spare set. Most of the stage is given over to the imposing but threadbare Fifth Avenue apartment of Erica Morini (Mary Beth Peil, a welcome sight). Aside from the 20-foot-high walls, on which hang (Jan Hartley’s projections of) museum-quality art, the former grandeur of the place is efficiently conveyed by a worn Persian rug on a parquet floor, a few good pieces of antique furniture, and a handsome silver cupboard housing a rare treasure — the Stradivarius violin played by Mrs. Morini when she was a celebrated 14-year-old child prodigy, making her debut at Carnegie Hall.
The modest home workshop of Brian Skarstad (the magnetic Michael Laurence) claims what’s left of the stage. A cluttered workbench, blocks of raw wood, and a hanging rack of unfinished violins suggest that this young man is not only a master restorer, but also a gifted violinmaker.
The plot ostensibly turns on how Mrs. Morini keeps thwarting Brian’s best efforts to sell the restored Strad. But since none of the hopeful buyers appears in the play, no real drama comes of that plot device. Nor is there much suspense in Mrs. Morini’s persistent challenge to Brian to give up the restoration work and return to his violinmaking art. Even Mrs. M’s colorful reminiscences are too sketchy to rise above anecdote.
What does resonate in the play is its characters’ boundless passion for the musical instrument that consumes their lives.
Peil (“The Good Wife”) has the look of refinement and the cultured air to play Erica Morini the legendary classical violinist. But she’s not a natural for Erica, the proud and prickly diva who enjoys a dirty joke and can tear a rival’s reputation to shreds.
Laurence (“Talk Radio”) has his own problems convincing anyone of Brian’s artistic insecurities. The character’s professional poise, taken together with the thesp’s charismatic presence, undermine the notion that Brian needs Erica to build up his self-confidence.
Both characters and performers are far more believable as consummate artists whose lives are bound up in the instrument that gives them both joy and pain. Laurence handles the Strad with reverential awe, his face a study in love and longing. Peil has her transporting moments when Erica strokes the violin with arthritic hands, hearing the music she can no longer play — moments that are all the more moving when violinist Stuart appears as the ghost of Erica’s youth and plays the music for her.