The Morini Strad
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
March 28, 2012
Erica Morini—the inspiration for Willy Holtzman's new play The Morini Strad—was a real person. She was a child prodigy who became famous in the 1920s in Europe and the United States; the journal The Strad called her the “most bewitching woman violinist of this [the 20th] century.” But, as our experience attests and the brief Wikipedia article about Morini concludes, she was forgotten by the time of her death in 1995. (Do not read the Wikipedia piece if you plan to see the play, because it reveals the big surprise of Holtzman's script.)
Given Morini's one-time acclaim as a virtuosa and her subsequent neglect by fans and scholars, I might have guessed that Holtzman would choose to present her life story in his play, restoring some of the glory to an interesting but mostly lost talent. However, that's not the play he chose to write. Instead, The Morini Strad is a meditation on the nature of art and on one's calling to make art, presented within the framework of a very conventional story of the relationship between a crotchety, lonely old woman (Erica) and a dynamic younger man who helps take her out of herself in the final months of her life.
The younger man is Brian, a talented maker of violins who supports himself as a restorer of older, more famous instruments. Erica's pride and joy—her Stradivarius violin—is what brings the two together; it has sustained some damage and she needs someone to restore it in secret. Holtzman's reliance on genre cliches reduces this central idea to contrivance time and again, unfortunately, but the key thematic point—that Brian is squandering his gifts working on violins made by others, even the titular Strad—is clearly made. A nice touch in the piece is the appearance during a few transitional scenes of a young violinist (portrayed by real-life prodigy Hanah Stuart) who amplifies a secondary theme of the importance of passing down traditions and tools from older generations to those younger.
Michael Laurence dominates the play as Brian, creating a completely convincing character as this man who is torn between pursuing his passion and keeping food on the table and a roof overhead for himself and his family. Laurence's physicality in the role is especially impressive: when he positions himself on a stool to begin working on the precious Strad, you completely believe in his abilities and his authentic love for the instrument.
Mary Beth Peil's performance as Erica Morini is less felicitous, in part because the character is written as such an archetypal mean-old-woman-with-a-heart-of-gold. Peil did not convince me that she was a violinist though, especially in a moment when her character is listening to an old recording of herself and, instead of grabbing an imaginary bow she waved her arms about as if she were conducting the orchestra.
The Morini Strad is directed by Casey Childs and features the usual attractive production design we expect from Primary Stages. I certainly salute the ideas behind this play, but I think Morini's legacy might have been better served with either an exploration of the more productive decades of her life or a more inspiring (necessarily fictionalized) account of how she might have passed on her art (and her priceless violin) to those who came after her.