nytheatre.com review by Michael Criscuolo
August 3, 2007
Primary Stages gets their new season off to a strong start with Michael Hollinger's Opus, a drama about group discord with just a hint of mystery at its core. Led by Terrence J. Nolen's superb direction and an excellent ensemble cast, this production proves that, as far as sustained quality goes, Primary Stages is the theatrical equivalent of money in the bank.
The story focuses on the Lazarra String Quartet, a world-renowned musical ensemble in search of a new member. One of their founders, the mercurial and mentally unstable Dorian, has disappeared without a trace, leaving his three partners in the lurch with a high-profile gig looming on the horizon: they've been invited to play the White House, in front of a television audience of potentially 15 million viewers. The three men—Carl, Alan, and Elliot (all white and middle-aged)—choose Grace, a talented young East Indian woman in her early-to-mid-20s. She is thrilled at the opportunity since the LSQ is the group that inspired her to pursue music in the first place. Little does Grace know that she is walking into a hotbed of long-concealed secrets, built-up tensions, and terminal illness.
Hollinger splits time between three different periods: the group's current rehearsals for the White House engagement; flashbacks charting their stormy history with Dorian; and interview footage from a recent documentary about the group. All three parts add up to a full-bodied portrait of these five characters, separately and together. Alan is the unassuming Casanova who may have designs on Grace. She's uncertain about her future, and just hopes to make enough of a living to avoid being pressured into medical school by her parents. Carl is the dry, wisecracking family man who gives the group its solid center. Elliot, on the other hand, is an imperious, cold aesthete who famously battled Dorian for musical control of the group.
Speaking of Dorian: where is he? Ah, but that's a surprise I'm sure Hollinger wouldn't want spoiled.
He does throw in a potentially deus ex machina conclusion that pulls together so many different plot threads simultaneously that even Shakespeare's head would spin. The author carries it off with a combination of some sharp, emotionally invested writing, and an equally effective and wrenching effort from the cast.
Nolen's direction is invisible and unobtrusive as he sets up a semi-insulated world that is held together for the group by their mutual affection for/commitment to each other, and their steady work routine (everyone hosts rehearsals at their homes, coffee and tea provided; all members get an equal vote on business matters, majority rules). My only quibble with his work is the choice he makes regarding the group's actual playing. The actors mime playing their instruments while prerecorded music is used to suggest their acumen. However, Nolen's decision to have the actors not even try to fake it convincingly—almost none of them opt to finger the necks of their respective instruments, and their bowing is weak)—is a glaring distraction in a production where everything else is so impeccably precise.
The five-person cast—David Beach, Mahira Kakkar, Michael Laurence, Douglas Rees, and Richard Topol—is uniformly excellent, with each member getting his or her moment in the spotlight. I especially liked Beach's impressive take on Elliot as a bit of an emotional terrorist, and Topol's friendly, easygoing charm as Alan (which makes it obvious why the chicks dig him).
Primary Stages adds another feather to their cap with this fine production. No other company in town is as reliably consistent as they are, and Opus proves that. If you haven't paid them a visit before, Hollinger's impressive drama is the perfect occasion to do so.