I’ll get the invariable name-related puns out of the way. Opus, the Kitchen Theatre’s latest play, does not pretend to be magnum. By that I mean it lacks the ponderous gravitas, that thick portentous sense of self-aware importance. Perhaps because of this, it was great fun to watch, so much so that the play resounded to its meditative denouement before I even knew it, which is a rare accomplishment — that it’s over? kind of shock that accompanies one’s return from the land of suspended disbelief.
Opus, as the promo material puts it, is about sex, drugs and chamber music. Not the most palatable combination on paper — it sounds like one of those mishmash amalgamations welded together in a ghastly symphony of artistic license. But, really, it’s not so much about sex or drugs as it is about the interpersonal dynamics of the team members of a nationally renowned (fictional) string quartet, named the Lazara Quartet. The play starts somewhat in media res. The intellectual but dyspeptically acerbic first violin Elliot (played with verve and snark by Michael Samuel Kaplan), the charming but somewhat cynical second violin Alan (Jesse Bush) and the sanguine, dependable cellist Carl (Alexander Thomas) are looking for a new member to fill the position of viola after Elliot fires the mercurial, musical virtuoso Dorian (played pitch-perfect by Brendan Powers) for his erratic behavior. Eventually, they settle on the vivacious musical prodigy Grace (Alison Scaramella), with little time to spare as the world-class quartet prepares for the biggest performance of its career — a televised Beethoven concert at the White House.
The opening scene, told in documentary format, with the members of the quartet sitting in their chairs, illuminated by individual spotlights in mimicry of an interview, is confusing and off-putting at first. However, as the quartet’s history is revealed through flashbacks, the story rapidly becomes engrossing. As the group’s rehearsals tide them closer to the date of the performance, tensions rise, and the group’s dynamics peel back layer by layer to reveal a deeply satisfying bouquet of narrative epiphany.
The playwright, Michael Hollinger, is a violinist. In many ways, the play could be a theatrical version of a concerto. Every instrument — every character — has a chance to shine through on its own, but, at the same time, each interacts with the other instruments in the composition, sometimes to create a rousing harmony or a cacophonic clash of competing personalities, interests and petty agendas. The play is almost a kind of testament to the ability to transpose musical vocabulary onto the conventions of theater, to encode soaring harmonies and jarring discordance with the careful application of dialogue, acting and characterization. And the end result is entertaining to see. Interactions between characters are a delight to watch because the dialogue is so snappy, so pitch-perfect that Elliot’s caustic one-liner insults or Carl’s placating banter are tremulously produced, crystal clear notes in a maestro’s composition.
The acting helps too, and, in this respect, Opus benefits the most from its accomplished direction. It is easy to see how less-than-stellar acting might have marred the quality of the production, much like how a bad musician might turn even the most hallowed classical pieces into so much noise, but every cast member shines here. In particular, performances by Kaplan as the snark-baboon Elliot, and Thomas as the virtuoso Dorian, stand out. Kaplan brings just the right amount of verve and sophistication to Elliot, while retaining the deep obstinacy of a spoiled child. His witty bon mots and passionate outbursts speak to his character’s intelligence and passion, but his obdurate, almost childish behavior towards those close to him provide the main fount for alienation and antagonism in the show. Thomas is, himself, a virtuoso in the role. He inhabits Dorian, becomes the troubled musical genius; his urbane, poetic declamations, delivered in a quavering, vibrato-esque baritone, defines the character utterly.
The play itself is not quite perfect, however. It seems that Elliot and Dorian dominate the stage so much with their forceful presence that other characters become secondary adornments, their development arrested after the first few tentative scenes. Alan never truly progresses beyond being a straight man. Carl pretty much remains a stoic enigma. As an outsider, Grace becomes a narrative anvil against which the ship of the Lazara Quartet founders and fragments. Also, the denouement, which left many plot threads unresolved, might have worked, were it the ending crescendo in a composition. But it leaves too much hanging here.
But criticisms aside, this really is a well-written and superbly directed production, a play worth seeing. It is enjoyably complex, fearless in direction and its depiction of human relationships, highly funny and endearing. It is almost a meta-testament to the torturous dynamics of creating truly great art, and of its ephemeral nature. Much as audiences in a concert hall treasure every note of a Beethoven opus because they are crystal clear reverberations that, after a brief blossoming across the hall, disappear forever, so is the theatre, with its one-time-only performances, a monument to the fleeting nature of artistic beauty. Opus is to be watched for an expression of that feeling, but also because it’s a darn good piece of after-dinner entertainment.
Opus runs at the Kitchen Theatre until November 11.