When asked to play Pachelbel’s Canon for a TV appearance, one member of the fictional string quartet at the center of Michael Hollinger’s Opus complains that this ubiquitous piece is “bland, innocuous.” Ultimately, the quartet opts to perform Beethoven’s more complex, and less familiar, Opus 131. Hollinger’s play aims to be more like this latter work, intricate and surprising. It shifts back and forth through time, depicting the fallout from the ouster and disappearance of the group’s unpredictable yet genius co-founder Dorian (Michael Laurence), as well as the personal clashes before his firing and after his replacement by Grace (Mahira Kakkar). Ironically, though, Opus is more like Pachelbel’s somewhat lulling piece: an easily digested soap opera set in the highbrow world of classical music.
At the center of Hollinger’s potboiler is quartet co-founder and first violinist Elliot (David Beach), a perniciously prissy gay man intent on remaining closeted for no apparent reason. Equally surprising is Elliot’s willingness to accept Dorian’s demeaning nickname of “Nellie”: Dorian may once have used it as a term of endearment, but we see it primarily used as an epithet when tempers flare during the play’s flashbacks. As the group moves forward with replacement violist Grace, Elliot becomes enraged when he suspects that second violinist and randy roué Alan (Richard Topol) might be having an affair with her. Throughout, the group’s good-natured cellist, Carl (Douglas Rees), is ready with a good joke when things become too heated. But, like Dorian’s mysterious whereabouts, the specter of Carl’s cancer looms.
Theoretically, it’s all potent stuff, but in a brief 90 minutes that are also filled with numerous hairpin plot twists, the opportunity to explore the characters or their relationships in depth is almost nonexistent. Director Terrence J. Nolen’s staging is both flashy (during the group’s frequent battles) and elegant (primarily when the actors mimic the musicians’ performances in Jorge Cousineau’s lush sound design). During these moments, the production has a certain heft. But ultimately, Opus—much acclaimed in regional productions—is a slight, sometimes dated, entertainment with aspirations of grandeur.