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By Terrence McNally
Directed by Walter Bobbie
At the Kennedy Center Family Theatre to April 4

Jeffrey Carlson’s flailing, mop-haired Vincenzo Bellini isn’t the only thing that’s a mess in Golden Age: Like too much of the art form it celebrates, Terrence McNally’s new comic drama about the heyday of bel canto opera is overlong, overwritten, and wildly overheated.

Undercharacterized, to boot: They may bear famous 19th-century names, but the high-strung singers who haunt the green room at a Paris theater on the night of Bellini’s final premiere are stock figures (flighty soprano, neurotic tenor, swaggering baritone, stalwart bass) trading barbs and banter that, in Walter Bobbie’s rushed but still endless production, feel as canned as the ham someone’s plainly been feeding the cast. Many things happen—a marriage is proposed, a much-loathed rival arrives, a pizza is delivered—but only one development has much import, and McNally telegraphs that one for what seems like weeks before it actually arrives. (This is the world of opera, so it will surprise no one that one of the characters turns out to be consumptive.)

The split-personality script wants to be both a lively backstage comedy (though it’s more Moon Over Buffalo than Noises Off) and a touching meditation on mortality and the creative process, but McNally’s notions about suffering artists don’t go deep: Bellini’s opening-night jitters seem fairly nonspecific, and his frustrated outbursts about the filter between composer and interpreter are anything but nuanced comments about an art that’s necessarily collaborative. (Theater is too, you say? Well, maybe that point is meant to be profound.)

There is a touch of poignancy in the way the shadow of Maria Callas still haunts McNally—it’s her voice this production uses offstage, in a sequence that’s supposed to be about a moment of pure magic—and there’s certainly much to like about Santo Loquasto’s rococo set and Richard St. Clair’s appropriately grand costumes. Those elements, like the late-evening appearance of actor George Morfogen (who slips in as the venerated Rossini to show the rest of the cast how effective understatement can be), add a touch of class to a Golden Age that’s otherwise more than a little garish.