Playwright: Michael Hollinger. At: Redtwist Theatre, 1044 W. Bryn Mawr Ave. Tickets: 773-728-7529; www.redtwist.org; $25-$30. Runs through: Jan. 15
In most classical string quartets, the first violin is the showiest part. Even though the melodic lead flows between all four players, the second violin, viola and cello often are far less bright and forward.
So it is with Opus, in which playwright Michael Hollinger cleverly uses a string-quartet model to portray the fictional Lazara Quartet. The sometimes quick dialogue and more extended solo passages shift fluidly between the actors (aided significantly by Christopher Burpee's lighting design), but Elliot, the manipulative and dominating first violinist, is the showiest role. Familiar strains of Bach and Pachebel ease the way for those untutored in classical music, while snippets of Bartok and Beethoven's String Quartet #14 (central to the play) appeal to musical cognoscenti. Whichever you are, Hollinger's play unveils some of the mysteries of making music and the passions of music makers, once you get over a few lurid (but amusing) sexual metaphors.
Using flashbacks to reveal what's happened before, Opus focuses on a week in which personal and professional intrigues threaten the future of the famous and successful Lazara Quartet. Seeding the story is the relationship between Elliot and the violist, Dorian, the quartet's co-founder and Elliot's longtime lover. When Dorian is forced out of the all-male group (and out of Elliot's life), a young female replacement is hired, although gender issues aren't the heart of the story.
Opus is trenchant, highly theatrical and entertaining, although Hollinger's foreshadowing of events is heavy-handed, several plot twists are predictable and he short-hands the characters. Running 85 minutestwice as long as String Quartet #14the play doesn't reveal enough about Elliot and Dorian to suggest why they stayed together so long. Also, we are told that Dorian is the quartet's most instinctively and brilliantly musical member, but we never are shown this aspect of his character.
Fortunately, under director Jason W. Gerace, the capable actors develop much of the missing character exposition through physical work and subtext. Michael Sherwin has Elliot's prissy, selfish routine down cold. John Ferrick is amiable as Alan, the second violinist drawn to the new violist, Grace, played by Emily Tate as a gifted young woman who grows up fast. Brian Parry is sympathetically rock-solid as Carl, the cellist, a slow-to-anger family man who is pivotal to the denouement. Finally, Paul Dunckel as Dorian is soulful, slightly tortured and not as innocent as he seems. They are a fine quintet, a true ensemble. They don't play their instruments (miming to recorded music), but it's clear they've studied the music well.
Eric Broadwater's intimate ¾-round set is a gem: a mural of Beethoven presiding over four pedestals and quiet geometric patterns painted in warm brown and beige hues.