Master Class: Barbara Walsh Excels as McNally's
Also see Bob's reviews of Twelfth Night and The Devil's Music: The Life and Times of Bessie Smith
Terrence McNally's 1995 play Master Class is a fictional meditation on Callas suggested by her Julliard classes. Master Class depicts one such class during which Callas works with three singers, two sopranos and a tenor. The audience is in attendance at the class which appears to be in a recital hall. The stunning Callas is coiffed within an inch of her life and glamorously dressed in a very high-end pants suit. Although Callas tells us that this is a class and not a performance, and we are not to applaud, it is clear that she is determined to keep the spotlight on herself and impress everyone with her own brilliance and greatness. Her haughty cruelty to her students sometimes gives way to her sincere appreciation of the art and potential on display, and her "internal" monologues reveal deep pain and disappointment in her life. These monologues are delivered in counterpoint to the performances of the students. Callas' reveries caused me to dislike Callas for her failure to pay any attention to the students who were relying on her for instruction. Whatever one's response to McNally's Callas, McNally has created a most complex and contradictory Callas who is as injured as she is cruel, as soulful as she is petty and who is as funny as she is frightening. The tour de force role is quite a challenge for any actress.
The outstanding Barbara Walsh is easily up to that challenge. Walsh captures every nuance of McNally's monster genius. Starting with her appearance and posturing, Walsh is every bit the diva who rivets our eyes to her. Walsh makes us believe all of the contradictory aspects of McNally's Callas. She even conveys the sense that her Callas is trying to understand and justify her behaviors in her own mind. This Callas may be a monster, yet Walsh makes you feel the pain when her emotions are pierced.
The Paper Mill Playhouse production is exemplary in every manner. The three students are portrayed by very fine singer-actors. Lauren Worsham is sweet and mousy as the easily intimidated Sophie. Mike McGowan (who was a seriously fine Fred/Petruchio in Paper Mill's Kiss Me, Kate) as the self-satisfied Tony sings Puccini's "Recondita Armonia" from Tosca in the floridly crowd-pleasing Mario Lanza style that is called for by the text, bringing down the house in the process. Sarah Uriarte Berry is strong as Sharon, who has the sassiness of a cruel diva in early spring. Her aria from Verdi's Macbeth is beautifully sung. Pianist Andrew Gerle provides excellent accompaniment and an entertaining performance as class pianist Manny.
Director Wendy C. Goldberg has obtained excellent performances from her entire cast. She has minimized the distance between the audience and the action by extending the stage over the orchestra pit, extending the playing area beyond the proscenium. This area belongs almost exclusively to Walsh's Callas, adding to her larger than life quality. Alexander Dodge's excellent stylized set of the recital stage sharply narrows to the rear, creating the feeling that the downstage action is being projected out into the auditorium. The costumes particularly define character here, and Anne Kennedy's are especially spot on.
Master Class continues performances through April 5, 2009 (Evenings: Wednesdays, Thursdays & Sundays 7:30 p.m.; Fridays & Saturdays 8 p.m. / Matinees: Thursdays, Saturdays & Sundays 2 p.m. at the Paper Mill Playhouse, Brookside Drive, Millburn, NJ 07041. Box Office: 973-376-4343; online: www.papermill.org.
Master Class by Terrence McNally, directed by Wendy C. Goldberg