Terrence McNally's 'The Golden Age' Opens Off-Broadway: REVIEW
BY NAVEEN KUMAR
The true nature of art, the steadfastness of love, the inevitability of death—this is the stuff of great opera, and the same lofty stuff that Terrence McNally’s play The Golden Age, which made its New York premiere Off-Broadway this week at Manhattan Theatre Club’s City Center Stage I, struggles to lay bare — just without all the beautiful music.
Set backstage on opening night of Vincenzo Bellini’s 1835 opera I Puritani in Paris, the play attempts to tackle in plain spoken contemporary words the sort of operatic stakes about which Bellini’s characters sing on stage out of sight. It’s a tall order, even for a gifted veteran of the American theatre like McNally, known for (among other things) his insightful dramas centered upon gay experience, homophobia and the AIDS crisis (Lips Together, Teeth Apart; Love! Valour! Compassion!), and acclaimed plays about opera and opera divas (The Lisbon Traviata, Master Class).
Despite assembling a top notch cast, including stalwarts of the stage Bebe Neuwirth and an underused F. Murray Abraham, McNally’s latest treatment of somewhat familiar territory falls short of offering insight on any of the various broad-stroke themes it has in its sights.
The always charming Lee Pace (Lincoln, The Normal Heart) has the whirlwind task of playing young artist Bellini—pacing, fretting and waxing poetically through the trial of a composer milling backstage during his opera’s opening night. Pace commits fully to his tireless performance of an artist consumed. Equally arrogant and insecure, Bellini becomes McNally’s resident voice of artistic authority, voicing passionate theories about art, artistic integrity and the nature of creativity. Trouble arises as we are constantly led to draw comparisons between the playwright’s work and his character’s best laid ideas about art. “The highest art should be un-performable,” Bellini says. “What they call art is artifice. What I call art is free, as wild as unmanageable as life itself. Away with structure. Only feeling matters.”
Under the serviceable though staid direction of Walter Bobbie (Venus in Fur), McNally’s play soars to no such heights. Propped up between structures—of the opera being performed off-stage and the historical characters upon which Golden Age is based—much of the drama deals in artifice and ego, without scratching beneath the surface of caricature.
Though Bellini and his cast of characters (and lovers) are based on people who lived and breathed, whether the audience is familiar with the world of nineteenth century opera or not, the play provides precious little help for understanding much about these players beyond their vocal range and professional rivalries. As Francesco Florimo, Bellini’s young patron and male lover, Will Rogers (The Public’s As You Like It) stands out as the most affecting corner of the central love triangle that also include’s Neuwirth’s Maria Malibran. Rogers brings a tender emotional shading to the role mostly missing from the rest of the play.
Much of the evening’s humor comes in the form of insider opera jokes and racial-ethnic stereotypes bandied between Europeans — generalizations based on nationality where specifics about characters would be helpful. Bits of bawdy physical humor crop up throughout, mostly thanks to the baritone (Lorenzo Pisoni) who uses fruit and vegetables to enhance the bulge in his pants. Consistent with the rest of the period drama clichés at work, a nineteenth century cough in the first act reveals itself as a sign of fatal illness by the second, in the form of a bloody handkerchief. The spotted rag of course belongs to Bellini, whose premature death at the age of 33 hangs over the evening lending ominous shadows to much theorizing about the nature of art and immortality. Ultimately, McNally provides little by way of revelation on this front—Bellini’s opera indeed lives on, and actors and audience alike listen wistfully to unseen snippets. If only a little of its artistry were in the room at City Center.
Naveen Kumar is a writer and editor living in New York City. He has spent close to ten years working in the New York theatre world and recently earned a masters degree in English and Comparative Literature from Columbia University. Starting today, Naveen will be contributing reviews, interviews, and other items of interest related to theatre for Towleroad.