Michael Hollinger, who is enjoying a well-deserved revival here (he co-adapted Folger’s Cyrano with Aaron Posner, and his Red Herring had a recent run at Washington Stage Guild), was a violinist before he was a playwright. He thus brings insight and assured realism to Opus, a story about the lives of classical musicians who are, at bottom, ordinary people at play with the gods.
They are in the Lazara Quartet, named after the fictional instrument-maker Pietro Lazara. Alan (Shelley Bolman), the second violinist, is a wise-cracking baseball fan and mildly aggressive Romeo; Carl (Paul Morella), who plays the cello, is a family man and cancer survivor; Elliot (Michael Kaye), the first violinist, is a humorless control freak; and Dorian (Benjamin Evett), who plays the viola, is a musical genius and manic-depressive who has left the quartet six days before it is to play at the White House.
We begin the narrative as Grace (Becky Webber) auditions to replace him. Grace is obviously a gifted musician, who does a difficult Bartok piece from sight. (All the actors mime, successfully, playing the recorded music.) The remaining members of the quartet, who have been together so long they can communicate in nods and half-completed sentences (“four instruments played with a single bow,” Alan says, quoting an old instructor), offer her the position. But Grace, who is aware of the quartet’s fractious history, hesitates.
She is thus like us, who have already seen how demanding the quartet and its work will be. She recognizes that though these musicians seem open and welcoming, they are dedicated to doing the hard stuff as well as it can humanly be done. When she agrees to accept their offer, we see the four musicians together, cheerily discussing tea and baseball (they rehearse in each others’ houses) and then practicing furiously, stringently criticizing themselves and each other.
Hollinger uses Grace’s gradual integration with the Lazara Quartet, and the framing device of a documentary done on the original group, to thrust us inside the Quartet’s dynamic, and he takes us backward and forward in time to see how the very human triumphs and failings of the musicians impose themselves upon the sublimity of the music. We learn the story behind Dorian’s departure from the quartet, his disappearance and planned recovery; we see the seeds of dissolution planted in a failed recording session; we see the struggle for power. Eventually, Hollinger asks the question which all ambitious people must ask themselves: is it our art which propels us forward, or our ego? (Interestingly, Tom Stoppard asks the same question about an entirely different field – journalism – in Washington Shakespeare’s production of Night and Day.)
There are a couple of different ways to do this play; director Jim Petosa and Olney Theatre have chosen the simplest and most direct. Kaye plays the volatile Elliot as a self-absorbed, insufferable prig; Evett plays Dorian – his polar opposite (and lover) – as sweet, childlike and self-effacing, notwithstanding the chaos his illness has moved him to create. This makes the operatic conclusion sensible, even inevitable, though it also deprives the show of some of the moral conflict that another approach might have given it.
Nonetheless, the production is full of quiet pleasures – including Christina Todesco’s lovely set, which brings an orchestra hall to mind. The actors’ work, especially Morella’s, is lucid, unfussy and, when necessary, powerful (although there were moments that I, sitting in the seventh row, had difficulty hearing Webber). All the characters are realistic and, except (deliberately) Kaye as Elliot, sympathetic. They face their challenges with determination and dignity – which is in part due to Hollinger, but also to the way that Petosa and the actors bring the play to life.
Above all is the music; Hollinger’s art helps us access an even higher art, and reminds us to be grateful that there are musicians like the ones in the Lazara Quartet.
By Michael Hollinger
Directed by Jim Petosa
Produced by Olney Theatre Center
Reviewed by Tim Treanor
Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes without intermission