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Theatre Reviews by Matthew Murray

David Beach, Richard Topol, Douglas Rees, and Michael Laurence
Photo by James Leynse.

A piece of wood doesn't need a sharp metal point attached to it to do real, lasting harm - four strings or some horsehair can do the trick nicely. You're reminded of the wounding power of both music and the physical possessions that create it many times over the course of Opus, the ear- and eye-catching but unsteady play by Michael Hollinger that Primary Stages is producing at 59E59.

The weapons wielded by the five make-or-break artists at the heart of Hollinger's play surpass most swords, spears, or bayonets because they also possess that mythical power to sooth the savage breast. Of course, once the doors are closed on the five past, present, and perhaps future members of the New York-based Lazara string quartet, it's every musician for himself. Everyone must contend not only with the renown the group has already received (they're high-profile enough to play a televised concert at the White House), but also with enough drama to flood a full symphony orchestra.

Hollinger deftly prescribes the intricate details of each rapport and rivalry between Elliot (David Beach), Alan (Richard Topol), Carl (Douglas Rees), Dorian (Michael Laurence), and Grace (Mahira Kakkar), transforming them all into identifiable solo voices in a discordant chorus singing about the need for art and the heart alike. As long as Hollinger focuses on the technical underpinnings of their interplay, investing potentially deadly discussions of music theory and ensemble dynamics with authority only a veteran of that world could (Hollinger is a former violist), Opus is routinely engaging.

Even live "excerpts" of a documentary made about the quartet seem to be handled with an unusual elegance and intelligence, as is James Kronzer's recital-hall set, which captures all the sterile warmth of a place designed for acoustics first and comfort second. But it's when specifics sidle in that the play leans more precariously toward soap opera, these more unique features fading away into background noise. Hollinger has composed his characters with exceedingly broad gestures that never allow them to match the complexity of their professional interactions.

Mahira Kakkar, Douglas Rees, Michael Laurence, David Beach, and Richard Topol
Photo by James Leynse.

First violin Elliot is a tempestuous taskmaster. Dorian, his former lover and the quartet's former violist, is the bewildering genius whose gifts were squandered so far from the forefront. (He never really recovered from losing out the first violin position to random chance.) Second violin Alan is a hopelessly horny divorcé, while cellist Carl is a cancer survivor with neither the time nor the patience for petty squabbles. Grace is a talented violist, but also very young and with lots to learn about the way the world - and especially quartets - work.

Populating his play with paint-by-numbers personalities such as these limits Hollinger's opportunities for exploring more interesting avenues. The central concern is the power struggle between the draconian, demanding Elliot and the tortured genius Dorian, which culminates in a kind of custody battle over the antique violin Elliot plays but both men cherish. (Dorian's instrument is a matching viola, carved from the same tree.) The war between proficiency and passion is nothing new; that Dorian's ejection from the group leads to Grace's replacing him, thus providing a possible romantic foil for Alan, is similarly predictable. (It's best not to inquire about Carl's cancer, for that matter.)

Much of the acting displays similarly generic qualities that play into, rather than above, the characters' most basic traits. Beach's Elliot is little more than a tightly pulled bungee cord of nervous energy always on the verge of snapping, while Laurence plays Dorian as always looking off into the distance as if straining to listen to a tune no one else can hear; deeper, more vivid colors are neither in evidence nor required of them. Topol is acceptably amiable throughout, and Rees at times overplays his gilt-edged gruffness; Kakkar comes across as something of a cipher, if a likeable one, as the underwritten Grace.

Terrence J. Nolen has directed, or rather conducted, with a nimble but flexible pacing that gives each scene such a distinct and appropriate feel of its own, each one feels like an individual movement in a classical composition. The finesse with which he guides you from the present to the past to that documentary and back again provides Opus with a sense of forward motion it otherwise frequently lacks.

Except, that is, when it's teaching something - the lessons here about human nature and their curious connection the small-group mindset are compelling enough to fill a Tom Stoppard-like play all on their own. But too often Hollinger falls prey to the Goethe description of a quartet that Elliot quotes at one point: "A discourse among four reasonable people." Opus is only at its best when its characters and its subject matter are at their most unreasonable - and their most unfamiliar.

Through September 1
59E59 Theaters - Theater A, 59 East 59th Street, between Park and Madison.
Running Time: 90 minutes, with no intermission
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: TicketCentral

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