Classical music can drive you nuts. That seems to be the message of Opus, Michael Hollinger's play about a string quartet at American Stage. Hollinger knows all about classical music, having trained as a violist before switching to theater, and you have to wonder how he really feels about his former pursuit, because the play leads to a shocking, violent act that could serve as a kind of crazed metaphor for hatred of music.
I doubt that audience members leave Opus thinking about what goes into the interpretation of a quartet by Beethoven or Bartok, a process that is superbly depicted in the play. Instead, they must feel shell-shocked by the brutal denouement, which would be unfair to reveal to anyone who might attend.
Hollinger exploits the dramatic potential of the inner workings of a string quartet, and he has a terrific ear for musicians' shop talk as they squabble and gossip in rehearsal. But I think he suffered a failure of imagination when he contemplated having to wrap up his story, and went for the boffo ending. Everything about the play rings true until the penultimate scene, which is so wildly over the top that it wipes out all the deep understanding of classical music that came before.
As Opus opens, the Lazara Quartet is in crisis. The group has let go of its longtime viola player, Dorian, a troubled, manipulative visionary played by Steve Garland. To replace Dorian, the other three members — all men in their 40s — have chosen a young woman, Grace (Tracie Thomason), who is on the fence about joining the quartet or auditioning for the first viola chair with the Pittsburgh Symphony. Her dilemma leads to some amusing cracks about the difference between playing in a chamber group or an orchestra.
"The job satisfaction rates for orchestra players are actually lower than dentists,'' says Elliot (Steven Flaa), Lazara's first violin, who, in a spicy plot twist, is also Dorian's ex-boyfriend.
One of the refreshing things about Opus is how it debunks the stereotypes of classical musicians as stuffed shirts, exemplified by Dan Matisa's macho, sports-loving second violin, Alan, who comes across more like a truck driver than a guy who has spent his life plumbing the nuances of Beethoven quartets. Ricky Wayne is the crossword-puzzle-playing cellist, Carl, whose diagnosis of cancer lends more uncertainty to the quartet's future. Carl is the group's family man, though a darker side is suggested when the cellist mentions losing his temper when his kids fight over the remote.
Dan Lombardo directed the production, which features persuasive impersonations of string playing by the cast, to prerecorded quartet repertoire, as well as some fun arrangements of Beach Boys tunes. Michael Newton Brown's elegant set design is dominated by a burnished stage in the shape of a violin.
Opus runs through Dec. 5 at American Stage, St. Petersburg. $29-$50; student rush tickets $10 a half-hour before curtain. Pay what you can Tuesday. (727) 823-7529; americanstage.org.
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If Opus puts you in the mood for chamber music — and it will — check out the dozen excellent musicians from St. Petersburg College who are playing a concert of works by composer and faculty member Vernon Taranto Jr. The program includes a sonata for cello and piano, a woodwind trio, a "surreal triptych'' inspired by Bach's Brandenburg Concerto No. 1 and more at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at the SPC Music Center, 6605 Fifth Ave. N, St. Petersburg. Free. (727) 341-7984; spcollege.edu/spg/music/calendar.htm.
John Fleming can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8716. He blogs on Critics Circle at tampabay.com/blogs/critics.