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When Opera is more than a Joke

Theater review
by Kevin T. McEneaney
Fri Aug 19th, 2016

Elizabeth Franz

Are we all headed for that limbo before death, the nursing home? Yes, but only if we are lucky survivors. Those artists who are doubly lucky end up in a nursing home for indigent artists. That is the awkward situation of Ronald Harwood’s play Quartet, now playing at Sharon Playhouse. Four actors, who once participated in a legendary production of Verdi’s Rigoletto, find themselves (to their embarrassment) at the same nursing home. Their comedy is that they know too much about each other and tragically refuse to admit who they are to themselves.

Yes, this setting sounds peculiar, but a setting does not make a play—it’s what happens in the setting. Good playwriting compels viewers to care about characters, yet great playwriting makes the viewer think that if they were any one of those characters, they would not behave much differently. Beyond the script, one needs gifted actors to accomplish the magic of a great script. This quartet of veteran actors knows a thing or two about the magic of acting.     

Tony Award-Winner Elizabeth Franz stars as soprano Jean Horton, who had a significant career after their noted group production, but mysteriously fell silent. Joseph Hindy portrays the famous tenor Reginald Paget who sang his masterpiece love song to her. Greg Mullvaney as Wilfred Bond and Patricia McAneny as Cecily Robson play welcome comic roles with superb accent: Bond with an aggressive, restless shabbiness; McAneny with distracted senility that convincingly snaps back to thoroughly needed common sense anchored in practicality.

Initially, the audience is encouraged to identify with Paget who manages to garner sympathy, yet when the lady to whom he was briefly married to, Horton, enters toward the end of the first act, our sympathies switch suddenly to her, and the first act concludes adroitly with confusion about whom we should root for.

McAneny vivaciously opens the second act with a marvelous monologue. Just as Franz is expert at drawing raw emotion, McAneny manages comedy, whether unhinged or oblivious to the narcissism of her self-pitying companions.

The play portrays complicated and interesting characters with secrets they are reluctant to confess. Some of these secrets leak out in the course of the final act. Everybody but Paget becomes somewhat rejuvenated through memorializing their art, yet Paget remains the tragic figure solemnly locked into the artistic role he was famous for—the actor who had a gift for being someone he is not. Director John Simpkins might gently push Hindy to be more slightly more ambiguous than morosely truculent.

Scenic design by Michael Schweikardt is stunning and flexible. Costumes by Michelle Eden Humphrey appear as meticulous perfection.

The script easily sails a plethora of jokes about opera, philosophy, and sex. Only the ignorance of youth can possibly make the mistake of thinking the elderly, especially actors, might be dull. The play manages several witty aphorisms that may linger in your head with surgical precision.

Both Elizabeth Franz and Patricia McAneny made their acting debut in the original Broadway production of Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead at the Eugene O’Neill Theater in 1968. I saw them both that cold February in that famous production on Broadway and I am—all these years later—thrilled to see these great actresses just down the road at Sharon Playhouse in another Brit play as good as Stoppard’s.  

Quartet runs Tuesday through Sunday. The last performance is August 28.