Golden Age takes place in 1835, backstage at a Parisian theater presenting the world premiere of Vincenzo Bellini's opera I Puritani (The Puritans). The composer (Jeffrey Carlson) is dealing with the egos of his stars, "the four greatest singers in Europe"well, at least according to them. (We hear the opera being performed in the background, but only one of the singers gets to do any real vocalizing here.) Bellini is pacing the floor and wringing his hands, anxious about how his masterwork will be received by the critics. "If they don't like this, so be it," he declaresthen a few seconds later he contradicts himself: "No 'so be it.' My entire life has been a battle against 'so be it.'" When someone complains that he takes the theater too seriously, he sneers "I don't think anyone takes the theater seriously enough." And he talks about his grand plans for his upcoming operas, knowing all the while that he'll never live to write them.
Golden Age allows McNally to ruminate on art and its many meanings. The language is casual and informalVincenzo is called "Vinnie," Antonio becomes "Tony"and this humanizes these characters from the distant past. Most of these characters are fully rounded, and it's clear McNally has a lot of compassion for them. Bellini is temperamental and demanding, but in McNally's view, his art demands it. When Bellini carps that making art is his "destiny," his lover snaps "Then live with it and stop complaining." He's cruel to his stars"they should be kept in pens like livestock," he saysbut they forgive him. Despite all the sniping, the singers and the composer are devoted to each other and will do anything to support each other, as long as great art is the result.
This play is good art, but it's not yet great art. It takes place in real time at the opera's premiere, and so it lasts as long as the opera doesthree hours and ten minutes, spread across three acts. Simply put, there's not enough drama amongst these characters to justify a three-hour look at their lives. An hour could be easily cut here without impairing the show in any way. Golden Age works best as a rumination on art and philosophy; there's not much of a plot (will the opera finish its premiere without any hiccups?), and attempts to spike the story with dramatic conflict don't always work well. When the kind soprano Giulia (Rebecca Brooksher) throws a diva fit, it feels peculiar and predictable; when not one but two characters propose marriage, it feels repetitive. And an extended gag about an egotistical tenor (Marc Kudisch) who stuffs his crotch with food to make his bulge look bigger goes on too long and has an unfunny payoff.
Austin Pendleton has directed with a light touch, allowing the performers' personalities to shine through; the director's hand feels virtually invisible. (It's interesting, and perhaps appropriate, that the director of the opera-within-a-play is never mentioned.) There are good performances all around: Carlson is affected but convincing as the world-weary Bellini, Kudisch is having fun as the preening tenor, and Brooksher is sweet and sincere as the glamorous Giulia. Christopher Michael McFarland is touching as a portly singer who brags about his talent ("When you look like me you have to be conceited about something"), while Amanda Mason Warren brings an air of exoticism to the role of Giulia's rival. The great composer Rossini arrives late in the proceedings to teach Bellini an important lesson, and George Morfogen plays him with dignity and restraint.
Hoon Lee plays the fourth member of the singing quartet, Luigi Lablache. (Yes, an Asian American as an Italianone of the many unusual touches, like the anachronistic use of show tunes, that seem perfectly natural in the world of Golden Age.) Lee plays the part with warmth, but he doesn't have much to do; his is the only character whose part needs to be beefed up. The child actor Dante Mignucci has some nice moments as a page. The only disappointing performance comes from Roe Hartrampf, who plays Belluci's patron and lover with a callow air and some odd line readings.
Golden Age goes on far too long, but it's redeemed by the beauty of its language, its well-rounded characters, and the observations McNally makes about art and the creative process. This play will go on to a run at the Kennedy Center in Washington after its Philadelphia Theatre Company run ends, and with any luck it'll get tightened up. Right now, the play is kind of like the character Marc Kudisch plays: he's self-obsessed and overstuffed, but when he opens his mouth, he makes some beautiful music that's hard to resist.
Golden Age runs through February 14, 2010 at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre, 480 South Broad Street, Philadelphia. Ticket prices range from $46 to $59, with discounts available for students, seniors and groups, and are available by calling the box office at 215-985-0420, online at www.philadelphiatheatrecompany.org, or by visiting the box office.