Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - July 7, 2011
Master Class by Terrence McNally. Directed by Stephen Wadsworth. Scenic design by Thomas Lynch. Costume design by Martin Pakledinaz. Lighting design by David Lander. Sound design by Jon Gottlieb. Wig design by Paul Huntley. Cast: Sierra Boggess, Clinton Brandhagen, Jeremy Cohen, Tyne Daly, Alexandra Silber, Garrett Sorenson.
Mentally, everything seems about right. Daly is playing Maria Callas, one of the more tempestuous — and talented — opera singers of the 20th century, as known for her fiery acting as her unrestrained vocals, and captures the wry, icy mystery of “La Divina” in the arch of her eyebrows and the squat stature that somehow becomes statuesque the more you look at it. But as she’s enveloped in the clapping of a public who recognizes her from her decades of high-profile work on television (Cagney and Lacey, among many others) and stage (she won a Tony for playing Madame Rose in the 1989 revival of Gypsy), Daly trots downstage and stares at us as she drinks it all in, and then, at a moment precisely timed for maximum effect, barks her first line: “No applause.”
Of course the house erupts in laughter. But should it? As Callas presses on, she makes it clear that she means business. “We’re here to work. You’re not in a theatre. This is a classroom. No folderol. This is a master class. Singing is serious business.” If she really believes that, why does she accept their adoration to the point of joking about it? And if she’s not serious, why does she continue the charade for well over two hours? Neither Daly nor her director, Stephen Wadsworth, answers these questions. It’s this lack of detail, or if you prefer common sense, that crops up over and over again in different forms that makes this Master Class one that delivers, at best, a minor impact — and absolutely none of the power it’s capable of.
If you saw the original production and are wondering how this is possible, you’re not alone. This is one of McNally’s most subtle and exciting recent works, a tribute to an artist who was both created and destroyed by her art, and who by the time we meet her has dedicated her remaining years to returning both favors. A fantasy advanced shakedown session for three aspiring opera singers, the play is based on actual seminars Callas gave at Juilliard in the 1970s, but strives more for emotional than factual accuracy. When tackled with that in mind — as it reportedly was when Leonard Foglia directed the debut outing on Broadway (first with Zoe Caldwell, who won a Tony, then Patti LuPone, and finally Dixie Carter) and as I can confirm it was when he helmed the subsequent national tour with Faye Dunaway — the play is a shattering look into the dark heart of devotion, an exploration of sacrifice many of us will never fully understand, and a dissection of what it truly means to be a beacon of originality in a world of burned-out light bulbs.
What it most assuredly is not is a gentle caressing of base irony — or base anything else, for that matter. As Callas takes on each new student (played here by Alexandra Silber, Garrett Sorenson, and Sierra Boggess), their gifts and inadequacies are supposed to reflect Callas’s, forcing her to confront for the first time ever the drama and demons that made her who she is. This is an intense character study, not a tarted-up E! True La Scala Story. But as rendered by Wadsworth and Daly in this production, which originated at the Kennedy Center last year, we got a whole lot of the latter and almost none of the former. The result is a work that seems less like a play than a self-indulgent one-woman show that doesn’t know what point it’s trying to make.
With the students transformed into pure caricatures, they’re allowed only to display their gorgeous singing voices but effect no real change on Callas. Sorenson plays the tenor, Tony, as a stuffed-shirt embodiment of the puffed-chest braggadocio Callas professes to hate, and sings Tosca’s “Recondita armonia” as if it were “Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat” from Guys and Dolls. This, rather than his peculiar devotion to craft and raw communicative sensuality, moves Callas to tears? Boggess (who created the title role in the stage version of The Little Mermaid), plays the young soprano who receives Callas’s most brutal criticism, but doesn’t internalize it so completely that she can believably redirect it outward later and destroy what illusions Callas continues to hold. The character, it should be pointed out, exists for no other purpose.
Wadsworth has essentially ignored everyone who’s not his headliner; Silber, who plays the first nervous soprano, Jeremy Cohen as the doting accompanist, and Clinton Brandhagen as a no-nonsense stagehand should provide extra shading, but are allowed to make no impression at all in their roles. Even the set (by Thomas Lynch), a generic-looking studio, and nondescript costumes (by Martin Pakledinaz) seem intended to draw no attention away from the star. If Daly were giving a performance for the ages, this might make sense.
But, alas, she is severely miscast. A very earthy actress who dominates in the proper roles, she summons up none of the grandness that Callas insists defines her. True, one of the central conflicts is that of the scared, fumbling nobody battling against the towering name, but because we know which won out, picking the other obscures rather than amplifies the struggle. Compounding this, a crucial running plot point involves Callas despairing that none of her young charges, and indeed no one in the entire room, matches her charisma. “I’m drinking water, and I have presence,” she quips. Except she doesn’t — Daly has vocal heft (when speaking; Callas rarely sings here) and stamina to spare, but none of the theatre-filling size Callas brags about.
Worse, in the two vital dramatic fixtures of the evening, the lengthy monologues that crown both acts, Daly’s descents into Callas’s fraught memory are failures in almost every way except as examples of marathon line memorization. She offers no clue how the little girl who forsook oranges for pencils became the woman we see today. And when she recalls her marriage to Giovanni Battista Meneghini and her torrid affair with Aristotle Onassis, Daly’s impressions are so off point that not only can you not tell them apart from each other, you can’t even distinguish them from Callas.
That’s the problem in a nutshell: We’re never allowed to know who — or even more importantly, why — Callas is. Wadsworth and Daly have ensured we have a good time — there are laughs in this production you’ve never heard anywhere else. But between new laughs and new emotions, you sense that both the playwright and the woman he’s created would prefer the latter, seeing them as exemplars of the truth that, above all else, was Callas’s goal onstage and in life. This Master Class may entertaining in some ways, but it’s never true — and it doesn’t take long for false to stop being fun.