Every now and then Terrence McNally, one of America’s prized and prolific playwrights, having been off the boards for a season or two, sits down to write a play that isn’t about very much, sort of an exercise by which he keeps his typing fingers nimble.
In the case of Golden Age, first seen at the Kennedy Center in 2010 andnow brought to us by one of his home theatres, the Manhattan Theatre Club, he must have had a number of colorful characters in mind, for they are all operatic singer/actors. He has made it known for years that opera is an obsession of his, a source of great joy and comfort to him. A true aficionado of the genre, he has often been a guest on the Metropolitan Opera broadcasts, and his knowledge of opera is astounding.
This time out, he has set his play on the night of January 4, 1835, backstage at the Théâtre-Italien in Paris, just prior to and during the opening performance of Vincenzo Bellini’s I Puritani, and he has peopled it with its leading soprano, bass, tenor, baritone in addition to Signor Bellini himself, along with his boy friend. Later in the evening, “La Malibran” (Maria Malibran, another prima donna) and Gioacchino Rossini, drop by, and Mr. McNally writes sparkling dialogue for these talented and charismatic characters. Just think of what lovely words he put into the mouth of Maria Callas in Master Class, and you will listen closely for the bon mots that fly by throughout the 2 1/2 hours it takes to tell his story.
The problem is there is really no story to tell. Bellini’s nerves are on edge – - well, as composer of a work he fears will be unfavorably compared to his recent triumph Norma, it’s not particularly interesting to hear him moan and groan through the performance, which we can hear happening on the other side of the backstage wall. As each act ends, and we hear the roar of approval coming from the audience out there somewhere, Bellini is pushed and pulled so he can take his own bow in the theatre within our theatre. When arch rival Rossini appears to tell him how moved he has been by the performance, his triumph is complete, but his mood remains damp and dark.
Under Walter Bobbie’s direction, his cast is uneven at best. Bebe Neuwirth, petite and erect and looking quite lovely, can deliver a comic line with the best of them, but she does not have the size or the girth to suggest a grande dame of opera.
F.Murray Abraham, the play’s other most prominent name, has one scene with monologue late in the second act, and makes one wonder why he would bother to come to the theatre district eight times a week just to play a small supporting role. He plays it with polish and panache, but one still wonders.
In larger roles, Lorenzo Pisoni as a stuck-on-himself baritone, and Eddie Kaye Thomas, as a tenor with a high F, play with gusto, Ethan Phillips gets every laugh he’s been offered and some of his own invention as Luigi Lablache, the bass. Dierdre Friel is having a fine time tossing vitriol at Bebe Neuwirth, though she’s chosen to play the leading lady as one who is more concerned with what jewels to wear than to what notes to sing. Will Rogers, as the composer’s momentary love interest, has no character at all to play, but he plays it well.
None of it rings true. No one would ever be allowed to drop in backstage during a performance. None of these actors seem the least bit edgy as they banter with each other just before they enter, and we hear glorious voices that have clearly been recorded wafting back to us through the walls. Among other problems, these actors would hardly have had time to catch their breath, let alone let fly these glorious musical treats. In the central role, Lee Pace, a Juilliard graduate, plays Bellini more as a high school youth agonizing through his first production than as an established artist who is an adult.
Walter Kerr once accused Neil Simon of having “no idea for a play this season, but he wrote one anyway.” The play then was called Star Spangled Girl. This one is called Golden Age and I quote the late Mr. Kerr in describing it.
Golden Age is onstage through January 13, 2013 at MTC Stage I at City Center, 131 West 55th St, New York, NY>
Details and tickets.
Richard Seff, who, in his more than 60 year career on Broadway as a performer, agent, writer, and librettist, has recently written the book for Shine! The Horatio Alger Musical!, which debuted at the 2010 New York Musical Theatre Festival. He is also author of Supporting Player: My Life Upon the Wicked Stage, celebrating his lifetime on stage and behind the scenes, available through online booksellers, including Amazon.com. Read more at RichardSeff.com
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