It takes a super-savvy conductor to lead a group of four extraordinary non-musicians (plus one actual violin virtuoso) through the intricate movements of a play about a string quartet, and Simon Levy is that man. Levy, longtime producing director and dramaturg of the Fountain Theatre, has done his usual fine-tuned job as director of Michael Hollinger’s exquisite play “Opus” in its Los Angeles premiere.
“Opus” is the story of the unraveling of a highly successful string ensemble on the night that they play the White House. Although they pride themselves on running like a democracy (they even make musical decisions by vote), the group is often pulled in opposite directions by the fulminations of Elliot (Christian Lebano), a hotheaded taskmaster, and the lyrical emotionalism of Dorian (Daniel Blinkoff), an obsessive perfectionist. The fact that these two are semi-closeted lovers only adds to the dissension. The other two players, Alan (Cooper Thornton) and Carl (Gregory Giles), are strong personalities in their own right, struggle to maintain harmony in the group.
Into this musical maelstrom comes Grace (Jia Doughman) to audition to replace one of the members of the quartet. A violinist and actress in real life, Doughman brings a sweet innocence to the role and a welcome dollop of sober sanity.
Ironically, both playwright Hollinger and director Levy come to this play with strong musical backgrounds of their own. Hollinger acquired a Bachelor of Music in viola performance from the Oberlin Conservatory of Music before switching to theater and earning a Master’s Degree from Villanova University, where he is currently a member of the theater department faculty. Levy attended City College and San Francisco State as a music major, playing alto sax as a jazz musician before getting his degrees in theater, with an emphasis on directing.
In addition to Levy, however, the play also owes its impeccable timing to two violinists from the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Roy Tanabe and Larry Sonderling, who served as musical advisors. As the quartet rehearses their proposed work for the White House performance, Beethoven’s “Opus 131: String Quartet No. 14” in c-sharp minor, they are so attuned to the pre-recorded music that you would almost swear they were actually playing. Their body movements and bowing are beautiful to see, and it’s only the absence of fingering that convinces you that as musicians they are really fine actors.
The gorgeous music also fills the time during the brief blackouts as the actors change costumes, making it an integral and delicious background to the moments of non-action.
Intense as these characters are, they also display a quirky sense of humor. (For example, Allen accuses Elliot of being “pathologically punctual” and Elliot explains to Grace that “job satisfaction among musicians is lower than that of dentists,” and “the suicide rate is higher.” And one of them, explaining their elite musical training at Philadelphia’s prestigious Curtis Institute, notes that they “only played music by arrogant composers.”)
While Frederica Nascimento’s unobtrusive but attractive stage design and A. Jeffrey Schoenberg’s costume design add a certain panache to the proceedings, the two men who keep the play on a visual and aural high are lighting designer Ken Booth and sound designer Peter Bayne. Booth spotlights each performer on a totally black stage as he thinks aloud, and Bayne’s timing in starting and stopping the music in sync with the performers is absolutely crucial to the credibility of the play.
“Opus” is not one of those plays that ruminates on the meaning of art and its role in society. It is, instead, an altogether absorbing study of very real and very human individuals as they cope with their lives and prepare for the most important performance of their careers.
A performance to which we, along with the president, can only shout “Bravo!”
“Opus” will run Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. through Sept. 26th at The Fountain Theatre, 5060 Fountain Ave., in Los Angeles. In addition, Call (323) 663-1525 for reservations.
Cynthia Citron can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.