Golden Age: Theater Review

Despite a stellar cast, Terrence McNally's latest opera-themed play lacks the pizzazz of such previous efforts as "The Lisbon Traviata" and "Master Class."

Terrence McNally's new play conveys the chaotic backstage goings-on during the 1835 premiere of Vincenzo Bellini's final opera.

Backstage comedies have long been a theatrical staple, but despite the exoticism of its setting Terrence McNally’s new play Golden Age adds little new to the genre. Set on the opening night of Vincenzo Bellini’s last opera I Puritani (The Puritans), it’s the third in a trilogy of opera-themed works — The Lisbon Traviata and Master Class being the other two — by this playwright so in thrall to the art form.

Previously seen in Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., it’s now receiving its NYC premiere in an off-Broadway production presented by the Manhattan Theatre Club with a stellar cast including Lee Pace (currently onscreen in Lincoln), Bebe Neuwrith and Oscar-winner F. Murray Abraham.

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The action takes place backstage at Paris’ Theatre-Italien, where the 33-year-old Bellini (Pace) is nervously gauging the audience reaction to his latest work, of which we hear frequent snatches. Performing it are several well-known singers of the time known as the “Puritans Quartet,” including soprano Guilia Grisi (Dierde Friel), baritone Antonio Tamburini (Lorenzo Pisoni), bass Luigi Lablache (Ethan Phillips) and tenor Giovanni Rubini (Eddie Kaye Thomas).

The interactions among the egotistical, high-strung performers strike predictable if often amusing notes. The preening baritone stuffs his crotch with whatever fruits and vegetables are handy (a gag that’s repeated far too often). The insecure soprano literally faints upon the arrival of her arch-rival, the celebrated singer Maria Malibran (Neuwirth). Secret love affairs among the principals are revealed. And the singers lament that even they can’t keep track of the opera’s convoluted plot.

Meanwhile, Bellini, who disingenuously describes himself as “a musician from Italy who has a modest gift for song,” worries about having his singers stolen by his rival Donizetti and whether the celebrated composer Rossini (Abraham), who’s in attendance, will approve of his work. In one of the many anachronistic gags, he aimlessly plunks out melodies on the piano that are immediately recognizable as “Memory” from Cats and the love theme from The Godfather.

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Unfortunately, McNally has not infused the proceedings with either the sparkling wit or emotional resonance necessary to sustain the play’s two-and-a-half hour running time. There is the occasional striking moment, such as when Malibran dramatically recites the text of one of the opera’s arias (echoing a similar scene in Master Class). But for the most part the tepid action will best be appreciated by opera-loving audience members intimately familiar with the historical milieu and the real-life figures being depicted. Particularly disappointing is when the aging Rossini finally makes his appearance late in the second act, in a brief scene that has all the dramatic impact of a typical backstage meet-and-greet.

Under Walter Bobbie’s efficient direction, the performers vary in their effectiveness, with the more subtle turns, such as Neuwirth’s aging diva and Thomas’ lovestruck tenor, coming off best. In the central role of Bellini, the strapping Pace effectively conveys the artist’s mercurial, self-doubting temperament if not the fatal illness that would soon end his life prematurely. Adding greatly to the production’s overall effect are Jane Greenwood’s sumptuous costumes and Santo Loquasto’s lavish set that beautifully convey the period setting.               

Venue: NY City Center, New York (runs through Jan. 13)
Cast: F. Murray Abraham, Dierdre Friel, Coco Monroe, Bebe Neuwirth, Lee Pace, Ethan Phillips, Lorenzo Pisoni, Will Rogers, Eddie Kaye Thomas
Playwright: Terrence McNally
Director: Walter Bobbie
Set designer: Santo Loquasto
Costume designer: Jane Greenwood
Lighting designer: Peter Kaczorowski
Sound designer: Ryan Rumery

Presented by Manhattan Theater Club