With less than a week to go before a nationally televised performance at the White House, the world-famous Lazara Quartet hires a gifted young violist, Grace, to replace Dorian, the group's brilliant but unstable founder who left under mysterious circumstances. Feeling invigorated by the new blood, the quartet makes the risky decision to change their White House program: replacing a safe and predictable piece, Pachibel's Canon, with a thrilling and difficult one - Beethoven's Opus 131. This leads to five days of stormy rehearsals, culminating in a moment that will make or break the quartet in front of 25 million viewers.
Opus alternates between scenes of the quartet's difficult rehearsals, flashback scenes that explain the clashes that led to Dorian's departure, and monologues in which each musician tells what inspired him (or her) to become a musician. The best of these monologues convey all the passion that burns within these players. In the rehearsal scenes, though, we see the quirks that get in the way of creating a great performance - the temper tantrums, the romantic entanglements, the relentless perfectionism ("We can either play it your way or we can play it Beethoven's way"). One member of the quartet is getting over a cancer scare; another was divorced (after "seven years, like the itch") by a wife tired of his life on the road. Through it all, they try not to let their hardships affect their work - but eventually, something has to break.
Hollinger was trained as a violist, and he clearly knows the milieu he's writing about; he even knows all the right musician jokes ("A string quartet is like a marriage only with more fidelity"). But he also respects the skill and craft of musicians, as well as the sacrifices they must make. This show is a love letter to them.
The best performances here are the flashiest ones - David Whalen as Dorian, who may be crazy, and Patrick McNulty as Elliot, who is so neurotic and controlling that he is driving everybody else crazy. There are also strong turns by Greg Wood as the easygoing jokester Alan, Douglas Rees as the weary Carl, and Erika Cuenca as the reluctant peacemaker Grace. They receive strong but unobtrusive direction by Terrence J. Nolen. Nolen has the actors move their hands over their instruments so precisely that it almost seems like they are really playing (the music was actually pre-recorded by the Addison Quartet, a group of students at the Curtis Institute). The simple, understated set design by James Kronzer adds an extra touch of class.
While the play is generally strong, there are a few points where the seams of Hollinger's construction show through. For instance, Grace is kept in the dark about the reason for Dorian's departure until late in the show; it's a somewhat creaky way to build suspense. Also, a few of the attempts at humor seem more obligatory than natural; the White House performance leads to a few perfunctory jokes about the President that lack bite and feel out of place in such a personal drama. And speaking of bite, there's a joke about sandwiches - one that is too reminiscent of a similar line in Neil Simon's The Odd Couple. And it all climaxes in a violent action that catches everyone by surprise. Everyone onstage, that is; to the audience, it seemed predictable (at the performance I attended, some audience members were actually gasping in anticipation right before the violent event happened).
Despite these minor flaws, Opus remains a warm, gripping drama - one with as much affection for its characters as for the music they love. Like the characters in the play, the cast and creators of Opus have worked hard and created an invigorating work of art.
Opus runs through March 5, 2006 at the Arden Theatre Company, 40 North 2nd Street, Philadelphia. Tickets range from $27 to $45 and may be purchased by calling the Arden Box Office at 215-922-1122, or online at www.ardentheatre.org , or by visiting the box office.
Opus is presented in association with City Theatre Company of Pittsburgh, where it will play following this engagement.