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NEW YORK — It should be no surprise that someone with six Emmys and a Tony is an accomplished actor, but Tyne Daly is doing something extraordinary in Master Class. The fireworks and the scalding sarcasm are present and accounted for, which is as it should be in a role that calls for large doses of hauteur and humor. But it’s the humbling isolation and accumulated disappointment beneath all the self-dramatizing grandiosity and the put-downs that make Daly’s finely layered performance so riveting.
Inspired by a series of classes Maria Callas taught at New York’s Juilliard School in the early 1970s, Terrence McNally‘s 1995 play is primarily a star vehicle, winning a Tony for Zoe Caldwell, who originated the role. After headlining the national tour, Faye Dunaway obtained the film rights, intending to co-write, direct and star in a screen adaptation that, according to reports, has stalled mid-production.
Daly was McNally’s choice to play Callas in a staging first seen as part of a trilogy of the playwright’s opera-themed dramas at the Kennedy Center last year. Directed by Stephen Wadsworth, who brings an extensive background in opera, the transfer gives Daly her meatiest Broadway role since she played Rose in the 1989 revival of Gypsy. But while the part contains no shortage of flashy diva moments to chew on, this is a deeply considered characterization that never goes for theatrical effect at the expense of emotional insight.
What really distinguishes Daly’s Callas is the depth and shadings of her interaction with her students. Her methods are uncompromising, even pitiless. But there’s a strong sense here of an exacting teacher who gives the students something they can take away and use. She’s not unthreatened by the promise of their talent, particularly the girls. But she’s also fiercely driven in coaxing them to deliver their best. And there are subtle notes of warmth beneath the grande dame airs that might not register with a lesser actor in the role.
“Attention must be paid to every detail,” says Maria in one of many imperious pronouncements on the requirements of the theater. Daly follows that command to the letter. Her achievement, however, is to deliver a fully immersed performance while playing a character made up almost entirely of cultivated mannerisms and whirling contradictions.
Sipping from a glass of water, she chides her students for their lack of presence, saying, “Look at me, I’m drinking water and I have presence.” Nobody will dispute that here. Costumer Martin Pakledinaz, make up artist Angelina Avallone and wig designer Paul Huntley all deserve credit for creating the essence of the real Callas, but the transformative magic is Daly’s.
The upper-class cosmopolitan jumble of an accent; the clipped diction; the liberal sprinkling of French and Italian; the erect posture and regal bearing; the withering glances and the ingratiating smiles – these all appear as effortless in Daly as they are studied in McNally’s interpretation of Callas. She lands every laugh in a performance that’s tremendously funny yet also affectingly vulnerable, darkened by sorrow and self-reproach. Perhaps it’s because Daly is so associated with playing grounded working women that there’s a realness to her Maria. It suggests traces of the singer’s origins, living her first 13 years above a drugstore in Queens and spending the WWII years in Greece in near-poverty.
The play is divided into three one-on-one lessons, interspersed with Maria’s running commentary to onlookers in the auditorium and to the accompanist, Manny (Jeremy Cohen), at the Steinway. The first soprano, Sophie (Alexandra Silber), barely gets out a syllable of her chosen piece from La Sonnambula before being sliced and diced. The tenor, Tony (Garrett Sorenson), fares better, his stirring performance of Cavaradossi’s aria from Tosca disarms the teacher. That sets the scene for the heightened friction of the third encounter with Sharon (Sierra Boggess), a combative young soprano who fled the stage earlier, overcome by nerves after Callas’ initial rebuke about her outfit and her entrance.
Sharon sings Verdi’s Lady Macbeth, and Boggess (The Little Mermaid) gives her enough ego and entitlement to make both the character’s bold choice of material and her angry response to Callas’ condescension credible.
Sharon’s words are confronting, but it’s Callas’ internal monologues that really shake her composure, as the music prompts her to retreat into her past. She relives her triumphant debut at La Scala, her abrupt liquidation of her marriage, her career decline, her seduction by Aristotle Onassis and his eventual cruel dismissal of her. Somewhat forcibly integrated, these melodramatic interludes are the hardest parts of the play to pull off. But Wadsworth helps by stripping away the setting and leaving Daly alone on a dark stage to conjure those memories.
McNally’s play succeeds more as a fascinating character study than a full-blooded drama. But in this polished production, the impressive musicianship of its cast, and most of all in Daly’s remarkable performance, audiences are unlikely to feel cheated. Her final words on the sacrifices and rewards of art resonate with the clarity and honesty she demands of her students.
Venue: Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, New York (runs through Aug. 21)
Cast: Tyne Daly, Sierra Boggess, Clinton Brandhagen, Jeremy Cohen, Alexandra Silber, Garrett Sorenson
Playwright: Terrence McNally
Director: Stephen Wadsworth
Set designer: Thomas Lynch
Costume designer: Martin Pakledinaz
Lighting designer: David Lander
Sound designer: Jon Gottlieb
Presented by Manhattan Theatre Club by special arrangement with Max Cooper, Maberry Theatricals, Marks-Moore-Turnbull Group, Ted Snowdon
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