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Golden Age

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Lee Pace and Bebe Neuwirth
Photo by Joan Marcus.

Cross as many centuries as you like, an artist's problems apparently don't change that much. No one respects him, no one understands him, no one sees what he sees in the way he sees it... It's enough to make any creator worth his salt want to abjure his calling forever and either vanish into obscurity or disintegrate (or, heck, maybe both). Certainly, Terrence McNally's new entry into this genre, Golden Age, which Manhattan Theatre Club has just opened at its Stage I theater at City Center, touches on enough of these traditional devices to make you wonder whether any visionary's lot is ever destined to be a good one.

In the case of this play, which has been directed by Walter Bobbie, pondering such a question is not exactly a bad thing. Say what you will about McNally, or his specific treatment here of early-19th-century composer Vincenzo Bellini, but the playwright has a proven history in this area. Tortured theatre practitioners, whether of the spoken (Dedication, or the Stuff of Dreams) or operatic (Master Class) variety; the tangled silliness of show-biz (It's Only a Play), and too-passionate enthusiasts of these pursuits (The Lisbon Traviata) are subjects he intimately understands both intellectually and theatrically. So there was never much of a chance he'd stumble in their presentation here, at least in the overarching view.

That's the concern of Bellini (Lee Pace), as he mills and mulls around backstage during opening night of his final opera, I Puritani (The Puritans), in its Paris premiere. Ailing with a crippling cough and an encroaching exhaustion, he's determined to hear his work on its feet and (he hopes) delighting an audience, even if he can't bear to be positioned among the glittering first-nighters himself. And as he's faced with both the onlookers' reactions and his own securities, he knows he may find some solace in his patron-lover Francesco Florimo (Will Rogers), and the others, past and present, who have played such vital roles in his work.

McNally finds his surest expression when he's addressing Bellini's problems most directly, usually by way of his tempestuous muse Maria Malibran (Bebe Neuwirth). Although she doesn't arrive until late in Act I, her presence demands and commands a more probing consideration of perfection. She's in many ways Bellini's female, singing equivalent: inconsistent, unpredictable, brilliant, and destined to burn out long before her time, someone who is forever searching for posterity but doesn't realize she's crafted it just by being herself. Later still, Gioacchino Rossini (F. Murray Abraham), who's afraid he's drained himself of every worthwhile idea, also calls to give Bellini a glimpse into a different kind of future.

These characters show what McNally was truly attempting here, and how he's come so close to succeeding. This trio explains by example, showing how wonderful but fleeting greatness can be, but also the price tag that comes attached. McNally clearly feels for all three of them, and never fails to elicit from their interactions with other the sobering sense of both what the dangers are of giving everything to your art, but why doing less is not an option. Bellini is facing mortality head on, Malibran's brief career is already in its downward spiral, and Rossini's distinguished career is in just as pronounced a slow fade. But it's inescapable throughout that what they've done matters.

Unfortunately, this assurance has not extended to the other figures in this saga. Far less moving, and noticeably more annoying, are the vocalists McNally has constructed to represent the opening night cast. "Constructed" is the proper word, too, for these have clearly been fashioned from contemporary stereotypes of singers' behavior: the baritone (Lorenzo Pisoni) is a voracious sex fiend; the bass (Ethan Phillips) is insecure, unnoticed, and unappreciated; the tenor (Eddie Kaye Thomas) is smug and self-involved; and the soprano (Dierdre Friel) is every bit as gifted as she is vapid and forgettable.

Because Golden Age builds its foundation on so many established tropes, this approach is neither expected nor thematically incorrect. But because McNally hasn't let these half-sentence sketches evolve into richer people, the gambit pays few dramatic dividends. Among other things, there's no reason to care whether the tenor and the soprano ever fall in love, and the ongoing contention between the soprano and Malibran is so pointedly schematic that it's more tedious than edifying. It's only as these people relate to Bellini, mostly in the betrayal of how Donizetti has tapped them for his upcoming Don Pasquale, that what they're doing registers as necessarily juicy at the intersection of personal and professional pursuits.

It's interesting, however, that in this production the more central roles are not the most vividly performed. Phillips, Thomas, Friel, and especially Pisoni launch themselves into their superficial portrayals with a gusto that Rogers (utterly lacking the authority required), Neuwirth, and Pace seldom find. True, the latter three have more searching, internal writing that encourages fewer obvious sparks. But if Neuwirth and Pace have nicely burnished Malibran's and Bellini's brash, gilded edges, their hearts are never as open, and what drives them beyond the playwright's dictate is challenging to detect. Only Abraham builds a complete bridge between character and caricature by infusing his doddering-old-man type with sumptuous soul; his is by far the strongest performance, and his scant minutes onstage the production's most memorable.

Bobbie and McNally, though, haven't abandoned the rest of the evening, and it nonetheless accomplishes its most elemental goals. Bobbie directs with an inescapably modern hand that takes some getting used to, but which is ultimately appropriate for the frantic pacing nature of the play itself. The set (by Santo Loquasto) is a fine evocation of period design as seen from behind the scenes, and Jane Greenwood's costumes nicely blend boisterous visual excess with the penny-pinching inherent in any theatre company. These kinds of touches and others—at one point, when Bellini sits at a piano to test out new tunes floating around his head, the results are hilariously overly familiar—give the proceedings the homey aroma of one big, swirling in-joke.

That takes McNally pretty far, just never as far as it probably should. All these clever and emotionally trenchant elements promise to resolve into something more meaningful and substantial (a new variation on Sunday in the Park with George, perhaps?), but only with Bellini, Malibrand, and Rossini do we get close. Still, if, as McNally suggests, the artist's blessing (and curse) is having to create and create and create at any cost, that message comes through clearly enough and often enough for us to take it away with both warmth and warning: theirs is a power to respected and feared, yes, but also pitied and sympathized with. They may never get their full due, but there's worth there anyway. Much the same may be said of Golden Age itself.

Golden Age
Through January 6
New York City Center —Stage I, 131 West 55th Street
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