Jeffrey Carlson gives a richly nuanced performance as composer Vincenzo Bellini in Terrence McNally's somewhat unfocused new play about the 19th-century opera world.
Alas, the bombastic character (played by Marc Kudsich) seems to have taken his cue from the playwright, who compensates for a slight plot by wadding his play with an excess of dialogue often too reliant on shallow laughs. While rewarding meditations on art and love are eventually to be found here, some more trimming of the 2-1/2-hour work will be required before the work can fully succeed.
The play's concept is intriguing, as McNally takes us backstage at the Théâtre-Italien in Paris for the debut of Vincenzo Bellini's I Puritani in January 1835. The opera world's "four greatest singers" are performing Bellini's delicate, exalted music onstage (of which we get only the slightest hints) while backstage they wallow in bickering, petty rivalries, and insecurities. McNally fans will particularly enjoy the portrait of the renowned 1835 mezzo-soprano Maria Malibran (Amanda Mason Warren), who seems to share latter-day diva Maria Callas' tempestuous approach to art and love.
The problem in act one, however, is that once the characters are introduced, they repeatedly cover the same ground. McNally hasn't helped matters either by making most of the characters into stereotypical figures, save the moody and demanding Bellini (portrayed with great nuance and spirit by nimble Jeffrey Carlson).
While much of McNally's dialogue is beautifully crafted, utilizing both zingy aphorisms and longer essays on the creative process, some of the lines are surprisingly banal or clumsy. In addition, the dialogue and sensibility is quite contemporary -- so much so that these singers could be backstage in 1935 or 2010 as easily as 1835. (Indeed, at one point Bellini sits behind the keyboard and begins tinkling the torch song "Stormy Weather.")
Act two is much sharper. Here, several spellbinding moments of suspense and drama mingle with pointed ponderings about art and a study of the emotions provoked by Bellini's music. A moment skillfully combining anticipation and apprehension segues into a sublimely written and performed spoken-word version of the mad scene from the opera, which is Warren's finest moment onstage. George Morfogen also makes an indelible impression in the second act as the aging, reflective composer Gioacchino Rossini, who visits the singers backstage.
Director Walter Bobbie -- who took over the production after its earlier engagement in Philadelphia -- keeps everyone moving through their dialogue briskly. Moreover, he shifts them skillfully about Santo Loquasto's multi-level and richly detailed backstage set, which nicely captures the peculiar mélange of glamour and grit that is show business.