BY MICHAEL SOMMERS
OFF BROADWAY REVIEW
Terrence McNally is an expert on opera as well as a distinguished playwright. Among McNally’s plays are several regarding the opera world, notably “Master Class,” his vivid portrait of Maria Callas, and “The Lisbon Traviata,” which involves a flamboyant opera buff.
McNally’s latest play, “Golden Age,” which bowed on Tuesday in a Manhattan Theatre Club production at New York City Center, occurs during the opening night of the opera “I Puritani” in Paris in 1835.
A backstage comedy of sorts, the play centers upon the celebrated bel canto composer Vincenzo Bellini (Lee Pace), who anxiously monitors the audience reaction to his new opera from behind the scenes even as his leading singers swirl around him abuzz with their own self-absorbed concerns.
These sometimes clashing artistes include a preening baritone (Lorenzo Pisoni), an apprehensive tenor (Eddie Kaye Thomas), a surly bass (Ethan Phillips) and a temperamental soprano (Dierdre Friel). Bellini’s closest chum (Will Rogers) strives to buck up the ailing composer, who coughs blood. An unexpected visitor is the notorious diva Maria Malibran (Bebe Neuwirth) while another personage is the renowned composer Rossini (F. Murray Abraham in a brief cameo appearance).
It is disappointing to report that little actually happens upon the backstage setting handsomely designed by Santo Loquasto. The playwright assembles some potentially interesting historical characters within a stressful situation and after a ton of exposition all we ever get is some 1830s opera gossip, a few minor hissy-fits and the occasional remark about how life is short and art outlasts everything.
Smoothly directed by Walter Bobbie, these terribly passive doings roll out amiably enough but the two-act show proves to be an overlong snooze that its usually adept players cannot wake up. Devoted opera fans may derive some insider giggles as the real-life characters dish each other but viewers who don’t know “I Puritani” from “Gay Pur-ree” will be baffled by McNally’s flat-line attempt to bring music history to life.
“Golden Age” continues through Jan. 6 at MTC New York City Center, 131 W. 55th St., New York. Call (212) 581-1212 or visit www.manhattantheatreclub.com.