Michael Hollinger’s play Opus has won several accolades, The Barrymore Award for Outstanding New Play, a nomination for the Lucille Lortell and John Gassner awards for Best New Play, and a Citation from the American Critics Association. The play has also had a hugely successful run at the Fountain Theatre here in Los Angeles with several extensions and generally outstanding reviews. Plays about classical music are rare and, when the play contains music that we hear, let alone see played, the result is enchanting.
Director Simon Levy has done an excellent job of trying to make these rather splintered scenes seem a whole. But like the breakup of the string quartet, the “music” just doesn’t hold up. He has managed to use five very talented actors who miraculously seem to play the music (they just go through the motions, moving their bows but not their fingering) as a group. The actors were coached by Los Angeles Philharmonic’s violinist, Roy Tanabe. This coaching, plus the expert sound design of Peter Bayne and technical direction of Scott Tuomey, make the playing as realistic as possible. We hear snatches from “Beethoven’s Opus 130,” “Bartok’s 2nd String Quartet,” and “Bach’s Concerto in D Minor for two violins” among others.
The story itself is based on the horrific breakup of the Audubon Quartet that resulted in court orders, bankruptcies, and law suits. The group in the play is called the Lazara Quartet named after the brilliant violinmaker. One member of quartet, Dorian (a brilliant Daniel Blinkoff), is causing major disruptions within the group. He is always pointing out deficiencies in their playing (he is usually correct), but is also highly volatile being bi-polar and sometimes off his meds. It doesn’t help that he is in a relationship with the demanding, egotistical leader of the group, Elliot (a fairly one dimensional Christian Lebano, though that is largely the fault of the writing) Elliot treats Dorian like shit, so Dorian disappears for several weeks just before the group is to play for the President of The United States. A young and talented Asian girl (Jia Doughman) is brought in as a “sub.” She isn’t treated much better, at least by Elliot. The other two members of the Quartet are Carl (an earthy Gregory G. Giles) and Alan (the pragmatist).
All hell breaks loose at the White House when Dorian shows up, having pursued the others to fire Elliot, and they agree. Things are complicated by a recurring cancer in one of the players that also threatens their stability. All this is rather melodramatic and nears being a soap opera. Other movies, documentaries, and books have been written about the trouble of group dynamics when the group must act as one, so none of the infighting was very surprising at least to me who has encountered this in the theatre as well. For lovers of classical music and a behind the scenes look at what goes into making music, Opus is playing at the Fountain Theatre until Sept. 26th.