Friday, October 29, 2010

Even You, Oh Princess, in Your Cold Room


Once, while I lay dying, the man standing over me and holding my hand began to tickle me. He was, of course, a Tenor. I was Mimi, taking my last breath in Puccini’s opera La Boheme, and trying to sing my final pathetic notes. That Tenor was always trying something of this ilk during performances, and I must say that when singing “Addio, senza rancor” from Act 3 to the Tenor, it constituted great acting on my part. So do pay attention. I’m going to say something nice about a tenor here.

There. I’ve told you about my conflicts. Being a writer, a sometime critic, and a singer, I looked forward to the play Critical Mass at the Lion Theater, it being the first winning play of the Heiress Production Playwriting Competition, written by Joanne Sydney Lessner. The play is chock full of situations, features two married opera critics trying to conceive a child, a tenor seeking revenge for a destructive review, the tenor’s wife, a few other assorted characters including the tenor’s mother coming and going, the editor of the opera magazine, and a lot of good music (coming from the critics’ CD player and during intermission). All this, with the play being marketed as a discussion about criticism and its effect on performers, and yes, there was plenty of that.

Reader, do you see the problem yet? At the suggestion of one of the characters, I will say that Critical Mass is not a very good play, but it’s not a very bad play, either.

Here’s the premise: Two opera critics (she does opera performances, he does CDs) are married. The wife, Carrie (played by Leigh Williams), is of course the mean critic, with an ego with which she believes herself to be the premiere opera critic of the universe. She works for an Opera News type magazine and everyone wants to know what she says (so there, New York Times). Her tone seems to be that of the coldly nasty theater critic John Simon (remember him?). In her relentless drive for perfection, as she calls it, Carrie rewrites her wimpy husband Norman’s (Zac Hoogendyk) reviews to sound like her own (hard, hard, hard), and they go somewhat merrily along, describing voices with the narrowest measure of technical vocal quality. Carrie seems to not see the whole of a production when she goes to the opera – she seems to care nothing about the history, the interpretation, the music, the acting, anything other than vocal technique. In other words, she’s the Tin Man and although she says she’s not looking for a heart, she is looking to have a kid. What they have is a nice apartment, well designed by Chris Minard, whose set allowed for all the comings and goings as well as the play’s action.

Enter into the apartment The Tenor, Stefano (Aaron Davis), whose life Carrie ruined with one (one!) review. He plants himself in their apartment with promises of Mafia revenge against Norman if they don’t take him in, thus starting a cascade of events sprinkled with a discussion of the critic’s responsibilities that perhaps was too specific for the audience I was in. Lessner is obviously comfortable with the operatic world but who could not translate that into getting the audience excited about it or even interested. The tone mostly sounded like the snippets of conversation you hear when in line to get standing room tickets at the Met. It’s opera reduced to snotty twitter. And if that’s the case, what’s the point? Also, the general audience is not clear on what constitutes bad vocal technique or whether an aria is being mangled. When opera trivia was tossed out, like Cecilia Bartoli’s name used as a punch line, I found myself laughing alone.

Critical Mass is, in several places, a funny and a thoughtful play, but it can’t be both, and it tries so hard to be. The characters behind the married couple point precisely to what the problem is. Carrie hits hard with the repartee, while Norman is more thoughtful, and you wonder how that marriage lasted, rolling as it does from one side of the stylistic bed to the other. The play veers from farce, which, judging from its pace, the director Donald Brennar, intended it to be, but then it steers across the road and pauses over the human situations created by the farce. This naturally then makes the farce unbelievable and the emotions consequently ring untrue.

The pivotal character of Carrie suffers most from this rapid switching of lanes. She’s been loaded up with so much baggage that you wonder if the veering car has rolled over the feminist movement and everything is her fault, her responsibility. She moves from snappy one liners that destroy tenors and her husband’s ego, from “I hate you” to “let’s go to bed” faster than a soap opera. Her husband disappears for months without there being any attempt to find him, while the vehemently scorned/revenge seeking tenor lives with her, writing the husband’s reviews, cooking five-course meals, and fathering the child she wanted because her hormones were surging the moment her husband left. (A little girl, near me leaped up at intermission, crying, “I’m surging!”) What this means for the character of Carrie is that no matter how good she is (and the actress is quite good), her character remains undefined and unreal and, in the end, unfunny and unbelievable.

The play’s unwillingness to find a consistent tone also tires out the audience. We’re not sure if we’re to laugh at the Mafia jokes (speaking of tired) or be concerned for someone’s safety. So the play ends up feeling Wagnerian in length (not quality) even if it is only two hours long, and even if everyone is talking fast and the doorbell keeps ringing up new comings and goings.

The actors held up their end of the bargain, with Zac Hoogenayk as Norman being the most credible (alas, off stage for a good third) with an easygoing casual air that managed to make you like and understand an essentially unbelievable character. Leigh Williams tries hard to reconcile the too pronounced cattiness of Carrie with the warmth the writer tries to sneak in at the end. Shorey Walker and Mark Geller garner as much as they can from thankless parts. (Geller was advertised as a Bette-Davis impersonating editor; he was not, and if he was supposed to be, he wisely toned that down), and Laura Faith’s small role was sweetly delivered, if also caught in the play’s riding a bicycle built for two – or three – or two.

Aaron Davis as Stefano handled the farce aspect well by creating a stereotypical tenor that didn't go too overboard (an impossible balance, really), but then he struggled with the human side. He never sang until the end (except for a parting, “Addio, senza rancor” at one exit, and the audience again seemed clueless at this Boheme reference, while I thought, like any stereotypical soprano, “That’s my line”!).

I would argue that it was cruel to have Mr. Davis talk for two hours and then end the play singing the most gorgeous phrase in the aria, “Nessun Dorma” from Puccini’s Turandot. Yet, that was the play’s most successful moment. Everyone had left the stage, it was the first real quiet moment in two hours, and there, in that quiet, Davis brought us (finally!) opera. His voice was sweet and graceful, even if a little weak, and you could sense the audience feeling honest and strong emotion from Davis, even if they did not grasp the words per se. Critical Mass had finally found its voice at the very end – until then failing to even broach the passionate beauty of the art everyone was yakking about so intensely.

I can’t leave this review without pointing out that Heiress Productions, co-founded by the above-mentioned Laura Faith along with Mary Willis White, is a not-for-profit theatre production company that raises awareness and funds for cancer organizations. According to information in the program, Faith and White “wanted to use their acting skill and passion for theatre to make an impact in the battle against cancer.” Incorporated as a 501(c)3 organization in June, 2006, Heiress Productions provides free advertising space in their playbills to charitable cancer organizations, partners with one cancer organization for each production, and donates a portion of the proceeds to their charitable cause. For the program I attended, the company had partnered with the Lustgarten Foundation, which seeks the cure and prevention of pancreatic cancer. A relative of one of the board members, who had fallen victim to the disease, was memorialized on the playbill’s inside front cover, the back cover was an advertisement for Lustgarten, and the program also contained a listing of other non-profit cancer organizations. Bravo.

Critical Mass, a comedy by Joanne Sydney Lessner. With Aaron Davis, Laura Faith, Marc Geller, ZacHoogendyk, Shorey Walker, and Leigh Williams. Directed by Donald Brenner. Scenic design by Chris Minard, costume design by Ashley Rose Horton, lighting design by Melissa Mizell. Stage Manager: Taylor Crampton. Performances continue at the Lion @ Theatre Row (410 West 42nd Street) through Sunday, November 7th. Proceeds from Critical Mass will benefit The Lustgarten Foundation, dedicated to funding pancreatic cancer research.

Writer/singer Mary Sheeran’s new novel, Quest of the Sleeping Princess, which unfolds during a gala performance of the New York City Ballet, will be published later this year. She has sung through several operas, cabarets, and song recitals in New York, including several performances of Songs From the Balanchine Repertory. Her novel, Who Have the Power, an exploration of cultural conflict, feminism, and Native American history set on the American frontier, was published in 2006 (

Caption: Leigh Williams and Aaron Davis of Critical Mass.

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