One recent trend on Broadway has been a series of revivals of well-regarded plays that, in the harsh light of retrospect, have revealed themselves to be somewhat less than we once thought. The recent production of Equus shone a none-too-flattering light on the play's heavy-handed melodrama and archaic 1970s pop psychology. And the 2008 Broadway revival of A Man for All Seasons had some people wondering whether the title still held true.
And now we have Master Class, which won Terrence McNally his second Tony Award in two years, over the likes of David Hare (Racing Demon), Sam Shepard (Buried Child), and August Wilson (Seven Guitars). I saw Master Class on tour in Boston with Faye Dunaway (who is supposedly writing, directing, and starring in an upcoming film version), and I remember thinking at the time that it was an entertaining, well-wrought, and powerful play.
After seeing the current Broadway revival of Master Class, which is playing Samuel J. Friedman Theatre under the auspices of the Manhattan Theatre Club, I can honestly say that the play remains powerful and entertaining, but as for well-wrought, well, not so much. Upon second viewing, the play feels more like a superficial character study, with its central diva surrounded by straw men and women who serve as tragicomic fodder for her ravings and punchlines.
Make no mistake, though, it's a hell of a lot of fun, especially when the actress in question has the depth of characterization within her to make Callas believable. By all accounts, Zoe Caldwell and Patti LuPone served this function more than admirably. And, fortunately for the current production, Tyne Daly brings her own brand of fire and fury to the role. Of course, we knew Tyne had it in her, at least based on her kick-ass, Tony-winning turn as Rose in Gypsy. But here, Daly successfully sheds the trappings of her typical working-class roles and emerges as a powerhouse of regal and cultivated strength.
As you may know, Master Class is based on a series of actual master classes that famed opera singer Maria Callas held at Juilliard in the 1970s. McNally is clearly having a ball as he paints a portrait of Callas as both a brilliant performer and an exacting tyrant. He tries to give us a sense of how Callas came to be the woman she was at the time of the play, but the flashbacks come off as facile psychoanalysis: her family treated her poorly, her sister was the pretty one, Aristotle Onassis acted as though she were his possession, all of her nemeses were plotting her demise, etc. That said, Tyne Daly is mesmerizing during these flashbacks, as she is during the rest of the play, bringing to McNally's often stilted words a depth and dynamism that they don't fully earn on their own.
In truth, Master Class almost works as character exploration, but remains unconvincing as genuine drama. The play's chief liability arises in its thinly drawn supporting characters, who are not so much people as types, each a convenient foil to show us some different side of Callas. McNally also falls back to frequently on jokey, easy humor, and much of the dialog from the supporting players seems like a series of setups for Callas punchlines.
On the positive side, McNally is clearly not interested in simply portraying Callas as a heartless monster, hectoring her students to the point of tears and tantrums. He also reveals a bit of what made a Callas great artist as well. For Callas, a great opera performance wasn't so much about vocal technique (Callas famously lost her voice after about 10 years of performing), but rather about achieving a fully realized character portrayal, and bringing out the drama inherent in the music.
Master Class is at its most convincing and thrilling when Callas is exhorting her charges to find the drama behind the music. McNally receives able assistance here from director Stephen Wadsworth, who shows that he knows well the workings of the master class, having overseen many of them himself at Juilliard. Especially fun to watch is Callas's third coaching, with the fiery Sharon Graham, played here by Sierra Boggess (and in the original production by Audra McDonald, who won a Tony Award for that performance). Boggess, last seen on Broadway with a tail fin and in Heelys as Ariel in The Little Mermaid, has terrific presence and superbly clean soprano voice. Daly and Boggess prove to be quite a dynamic paring, particularly as the two spar during Sharon's numerous abortive attempts at getting through Lady Macbeth's letter scene.
I must concede that most of the critics were a lot more positive about Master Class than I, and based on the positive response, the production has been extended to September 4th. I recommend the show if you want to see a fierce and furious Tyne Daly, who truthfully is a revelation in the role. And the play is never less than entertaining. But as a piece of serious drama, and a tribute to one of the giants of the opera stage, Master Class is somewhat less than masterful.