There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
When double doors sweep serenely open as Zoe Caldwell makes her grand entrance in Master Class, they seem to be responding to the sort of starpower Terrence McNally’s elegant Maria Callas div(a)ertissement is all about. Caldwell, who shook the rafters of this same Eisenhower Theater a decade ago as Medea, is as much a diva as the Divina she’s playing, which means doors bow before her as naturally as applause wells up from the crowd. Or they seem to, until you catch a glimpse of a stagehand closing them behind her.
It’s no lapse. You’re supposed to spot him. He’s a character whose appearance is a staging fillip designed to telegraph what the playwright is up to in this slyly pointed comedy. McNally means for Master Class, which is based on classes Callas conducted at Juilliard in the early 1970s, to be a star vehicle that deconstructs stardom in much the same way Penn and Teller deconstruct magic. “Believe!” says the author, before exposing the tricks behind stage charisma, somehow rendering that charisma all the more remarkable in the process.
He starts with the very first lines. Caldwell has no sooner made the sort of showy entrance that practically begs for an ovation, than she’s raising her hand to end it. “No applause; we’re here to work,” says the actress, adopting the peremptory tone of an opera star turned teacher. “You’re not in a theater; this is a classroom.”
Of course, you are in a theater, and the applause she’s stopped as Callas has really been for Caldwell, but that’s the point. As the evening bounces brightly along on wave after wave of laughter, dualities are everywhere—in the split between artist and diva, public career and private life, hearing and listening, having real beauty and having “a look.” Always, the chatter is about art, but the subtext is show-biz. The character lectures the audience (“If you can’t hear me, it’s your fault; you’re not concentrating”), flirts with pianist Stuart Malina when he pays her compliments she has all but demanded (“I’m really cross with you”), and blithely upstages the three singers (“Observe the students, not me…poof, I’m invisible”) she is supposed to be critiquing. She also finds time to reminisce about a tumultuous career that took her from La Scala to the Met while dividing audiences into armed camps, and about the very public “private” life she shared with lover Aristotle Onassis before he abandoned her for a U.S. president’s widow she can’t bring herself to name.
Sometimes McNally blends the character’s public and private thoughts to neat effect, as when Callas ends a dissection of some particularly harrowing lyrics by saying, “Medea sings that to Jason when she learns he’s leaving her for another woman.” And since the playwright wrote Master Class specifically for Caldwell, he and director Leonard Foglia get some added spin from the fact that their star also played Medea, right here, on this stage. When Caldwell extends an index finger down one thigh in a speech about giving characters roots through stageboards to the rock beneath, she’s using a gesture that riveted audiences to her murderous Greek heroine some 13 years ago. The power of that gesture—at once sensual and ferocious—is as persuasive now as it was then. Similarly powerful is a moment when she shudders in recalling a triumph at La Scala, and the whole stage seems to shiver with her. Caldwell’s command of the stage is so total that it takes a while before you realize her feverish conjuring is being aided by one of designer Brian MacDevitt’s lighting effects.
The director probably shouldn’t repeat that effect—a proscenium-wide projection that makes exquisite use of Michael McGarty’s domed, classical, white-on-white classroom—in the second half of the evening, since doing so suggests the production has run through its bag of tricks at almost precisely the moment that patrons are likely to be coming to that conclusion on their own. Structurally, the evening isn’t much more than a trio of student critiques, and though McNally and Foglia are inventive in presenting them, it’s tough to keep a thrice-told tale fresh.
Luckily, the supporting cast is as bright and savvy as the material provided for them. Sweet-voiced Karen Kay Cody is a giddy mess as Callas’ first victim, a plump singer named Sophie who is neatly sabotaged by her frilly pink frock even before she starts giggling when fixed by Callas’ icy stare. The poor creature barely manages to get out her first note before she’s pounced upon for not feeling the “Oh!” in her rendition of La Sonambula‘s “Oh! se una volta sola.” A similar accusation could be leveled at Tony (Jay Hunter Morris), the tenor who idolizes Mario Lanza and doesn’t quite get this “emotion” thing Callas keeps talking about in Tosca until she seduces it from him mid-aria. The audience reads the moment he starts to get it right in his teacher’s expression rather than in his voice. Morris is wonderfully subtle and in fine voice, but even if he weren’t, Caldwell’s ardent surrender to his singing would make him seem world-class by the end of his “Recondita armoria.”
Callas meets her match with her third student in a confrontation that’s mesmerizing enough to suggest the more substantial play McNally might have chosen to write. As played by deeply resonant soprano Audra McDonald—who triumphed last season in Broadway’s Carousel and will likely become a star in her own right in this role—Sharon has more than a glimmer of the presence and star power Master Class celebrates. Not only does her voice recall that of the midcareer Callas we hear several times on tape, but her fire and ebullience are remarkably like Caldwell’s. Where the star could bully Sophie and seduce Tony, she must spar with Sharon on roughly equal terms, which made me wish the play would delve deeper and wreak more psychological havoc than McNally seems to want it to. You can hardly blame him for devising a stage vehicle rather than a drama, especially with Caldwell riding it so spectacularly, but you can wish he’d risked more—taken a flying leap at, say, Amadeus, rather than crafting a musically sophisticated Miss Margarida’s Way.
Still, the evening is satisfying enough on its own terms to render such quibbling irrelevant. Broadway hasn’t had a smash play in a while, and this one’s crafted to go over big in big houses, with a leading role that almost can’t be overplayed. Caldwell’s work is delicate, but if she were broader, the audience would likely attribute all excesses to Callas, and go along anyway. The role is a godsend, and so theatrically galvanizing that it’s easy to understand why critics in Los Angeles fell over dead for it. Also why the theater grapevine has it and the show winning Tony Awards by the armful next June. The opening-night KenCen crowd leapt to its feet so enthusiastically for Caldwell at the curtain call (she takes her first bow as Callas), you’d have sworn they’d not seen real star power since she was last here.
Which is sort of true.
Doug Wright dealt his excoriating tragicomedy about yupsters who can’t have a child a serious PR problem by giving it the misleading title Watbanaland. But if that Fugardian moniker conjures images of the South African veldt rather than the Manhattan skyscrap ers Wright’s characters call home, rest assured that everything else about the evening as it plays out at Woolly Mammoth is blisteringly immediate.
The story centers on Park (Paul Morella), a successful businessman caught on the horns of a genetic dilemma. His long-suffering wife, Flo (Kimberly Schraf), can’t fathom why he’s so spooked by the notion of having a child, but what she doesn’t know is that he’s already fathered one—a son born without a brain—by his secretary (Emily Townley). Terrified of the consequences of either revealing his infidelity or bringing another impaired child into the world, he’s developed self-loathing into an art form of sorts. So much so that an acquaintance describes him as “toxic” to be around.
When his secretary takes off with their child and a tollbooth cashier named Dash (Christopher Lane) whose genetic makeup is so perfect he’s been written up in medical journals, Park’s toxicity becomes so severe that he becomes literally poisonous, and in a neat bit of poetic justice, he is plunged into a nastily apt hell of his own making.
Lee Mikeska Gardner’s edgy staging is excruciatingly right for a show that mostly whistles through the graveyard of a failed marriage. She’s encouraged the performers to find comedy in situations that would prove maudlin if rendered straight, and to approach the evening’s genuinely horrific conclusion with admirable restraint. Morella’s performance is as unflinching as it is anguished, while Townley is sharp, funny, and affecting in what might be called the Melanie Griffith “working girl” role.
The staging can’t entirely get around the author’s clumsiest flight of fancy—a sequence in which a painted African chieftain emerges from Flo’s refrigerator to impregnate her—but it has a way of teasing poetry from his images. Aided by Tony Cisek’s sleek, multidoored setting, which initially appears to be made of brushed aluminum but turns transparent and reveals a hidden jungle with a nudge from Marianne Meadows’ lighting, the production leaps from darkened study to open road to deep chasms of depression. The psychological landscape is made every bit as hauntingly real as the physical one. When Park’s eyes are described as “a vast inner cavern of want,” you know just what that means.