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REVIEW: Being Shakespeare

The Morini Strad

Mary Beth Peil is excellent as an aging violinist in Willy Holtzman's note-perfect play.

By New York City
Hanah Stuart (top), Mary Beth Peil, and
Michael Laurence in The Morini Strad
(© James Leynse)
Hanah Stuart (top), Mary Beth Peil, and
Michael Laurence in The Morini Strad
(© James Leynse)
Willy Holtzman's The Morini Strad, now enjoying a note-perfect premiere by Primary Stages at 59E59 Theaters, under the sensitive direction of Casey Childs, may not be exploring new dramaturgical territory, but it's explored with fresh eyes and keen ears.

The fact-based work focuses on crusty, once-famous violinist Erica Morini (the excellent Mary Beth Peil) who forms a grudging attachment to up-and-coming violin-maker (but for now mostly repairer) Brian Skarstad (played by Michael Laurence, who radiates an essential decency, as well as a prideful side of his own).

Plays addressing the intergenerational transmission of art present a minefield of potential clichés, but Holtzman deftly averts them all. While providing an abundance of recondite details to establish authenticity, he also inserts regular jolts of humor so as to resist any slide toward mawkishness.

The irascible Morini takes utmost advantage of her advanced age to issue outrageous observations from her elegant, if musty Fifth Avenue apartment (evocatively summoned in Neil Patel's expeditious set). When Skarstad is summoned to examine -- discreetly -- a damaged Stradivarius, he happens to mention that he works at home, surrounded by children. Morini sniffs: "One needn't boast of procreation."

But now that her allotted time on earth is dwindling, along with the demand for her expertise (she teaches "a select few hopeless students" and the occasional master class), she can't help assessing the priorities that have left her marginalized and alone, with only memories to fill in for human warmth.

The past visits her in the guise of her own vigorous youth. Violinist Hanah Stuart (herself a young soloist of enormous promise), wafts about in sausage curls and a white organdy frock, wielding a violin with unmistakable panache.

For dramatic purposes, it might suffice merely to claim that Morini was once a phenomenon. However, to see -- and more importantly, hear -- this resurrected vision of virtuosity offers a rare opportunity to experience the transporting power of music exquisitely played.

Peil, while flawlessly adopting the accent and manners of a cultured Middle European, never overdoes the grande dame. She's a finely calibrated blend of prickliness and stiff-backed pride. But when Erica loosens her stays, the legend proves she has an antic side and likes to scandalize.

And as for her gradual softening, as she begins to admire Skarstad's skill and integrity, it's a small miracle -- and a joy to behold.


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