His eye does not shine kindly on his fellow creatures in the best of circumstances -- not the second violinist, Hal (Thomas Sadoski), a former student whose ambition he feels nipping at his heels, nor his faithful whipping-boy-cum-cheerleader, Paul (Rufus Collins), on viola. Indeed, James derives a fiendish delight from rattling off "violist jokes" which make their Polish counterparts seem downright kindly. Paul counters, borderline masochistically, with old review clippings culled to bolster James's confidence -- not that the career egomaniac would ever let on that he's quaking inside.
Why is James such a caustic, autocratic monster? Because, evidently, he can get away with it. The only ensemble member he doesn't get in his crosshairs is the young female cellist, Beth (Alicia Witt) -- or at least until she starts consorting with Jonny, a rock star. Patch Darragh plays this alien interloper not as a posturing cock of the walk -- that would be too easy, and a caricature -- but as one of the weedier modern variety, the ex-sex symbol turned soulful would-be singer-songwriter. Sure, it's the Ramones with their driving three-chord screeds that first captured Jonny's imagination as a seven-year-old -- Beth had a similar conversion experience with Bartok -- but he has matured to the point that he can be touched by a bit of Borodin and moved to class up his act. So he hires Beth to teach him the basics.
These early instructional sessions (held in a snazzy music-biz lobby which set designer Andrew Layton deftly propels into the calm, white-paneled rehearsal room) strike the only slightly false note in these taut and witty proceedings. It's hard to imagine that Jonny, in this age of classical/pop crossovers and self-taught prodigies, would be quite so clueless. It's even less believable that Beth, in her earnest desire to start at the very beginning, would natter on about monks discovering polyphony.
The awkwardness of their conversation aside, we really can't wait to get back to James and his scurrilous put-downs. Once he's introduced to the group, Jonny provides a perfect target for James's vitriol. ("The global triumph of aural sewage" is how James summarizes the ascendancy of rock.)
Meanwhile, a number of surprises enliven act two. Certain backstories get unraveled; for example, just what is Hal's history with Beth? And music, both as metaphor and taskmaster, gets an ever more vigorous workout.
Surprisingly, Lanigan -- a British novelist transplanted to Brooklyn -- is not a music practitioner himself, though he speaks the language fluently. He's also a soccer columnist for ESPN, and perhaps it's this sideline that informs his facility. As he maps out a trajectory for each contender, much as a composer might appose melodic lines, Lanigan exhibits a terrific grasp of the power plays and petty skirmishes that make for gripping drama.