Terrence McNally's "Master Class" is about art and passion. In a must-see performance by the wonderful Zoe Caldwell, Maria Callas expresses passion for her art in a bitchy but elegant torrent of commentary delivered to three students in a class conducted after the great soprano had lost her voice. In the course of the play, Callas' striving for excellence becomes intertwined with the astringent brilliance of Caldwell's own performance, making this a dialogue for two extraordinary personalities.
"Master Class" is McNally's love letter to Callas, to the art of playwriting and to all things extraordinary in a world filled with mediocrity. After premiering at the Philadelphia Theatre Company, the play opened Wednesday night at the Mark Taper Forum on its pre-New York journey.
McNally has already expressed his passion for Callas in another memorable play. In his 1989 "The Lisbon Traviata," an acid-tongued and lonely gay man named Mendy ardently believes that anyone who does not hear the beauty in Callas' voice might just as well be dead. This time around, McNally brings us the goddess herself.
Surprisingly, the character of Callas is not all that different from Mendy--she is grand, lonely and hilariously mean-spirited. But unlike Mendy, Callas is a great artist, so her aching insights about beauty and art carry more weight and majesty.
Her students are terrified of this imperious personage, as well they should be. One big-boned woman enters in a disastrous flouncy peach dress, which Callas eyes as if she were witnessing the gravest tragedy imaginable. Callas' teaching method is to strip her students of their self-confidence and then dare them to re-enter gracefully and sing their hearts out. If they can't answer that challenge, Callas believes, they have no business singing arias.
With the sweetly obsequious Manny (David Loud) at the piano, Callas confronts three successive students who, though unpolished, nevertheless have voices fine enough to make it into Callas' master class: the hopelessly unsophisticated Sophie (Karen Kay Cody); Tony (Jay Hunter Morris), a good-natured tenor who surprises Callas with a moving bit from "Tosca," and finally Sharon (Audra McDonald), inspired by Callas' insults to perform an impressively furious Lady Macbeth, only to be insulted even more by her teacher.
Despite all this insulting of young flesh, Caldwell's Callas is fascinating, oddly endearing and entertaining. Often, after taking a deadly, dead-on swipe at an old rival or present student, Caldwell flashes her dramatically kohl-lined eyes to the audience with a conspiratorial look that dares anyone to question the rightness of her taste.
And Caldwell even looks a little like the great diva, particularly in profile, with her sharp nose and flashing eyes as well as in the beauty of her bearing. She also recalls Callas in the way she gracefully extends a hand as if reaching out to the person she is insulting, which, indeed, she is.
Our understanding of Callas is also abetted by two interior monologues, a device McNally seems to be growing increasingly fond of. Here, he plunges us into Callas' private remembrances, with the help of Brian MacDevitt's film close-up lighting. In one, Callas takes us through her triumph at La Scala. With images of the opera house boxes projected all around her and a recording of the actual singer's voice heard from above, she recalls the sensation of soaring over every enemy, every injury and every hunger in the world, of being "the absolute center of the universe right now."
In a more painful memory, Callas relives her unfortunate relationship with Aristotle Onassis, playing both roles. Though crucial to our understanding of the legendary soprano, this memory strips the character of some of her majesty by revealing that Onassis' brutalization made her something quite common, indeed. Also, the act-two monologue is less exciting than and repetitive of the act-one monologue. The play ends somewhat anticlimactically.
Michael McGarty's clean set, with its churchlike vaulting and its wooden floor, emphasizes the theater-as-a-temple theme. The space works quite well for Leonard Foglia's fluid staging, which has Callas prowling the room, and often has her students hugging the wall for safety. Foglia has helped Caldwell achieve a performance in which Callas' brilliance is as palpable as Caldwell's own passion and depth.
The actress, who won a Tony for "Medea," subtly reminds us in one speech that Callas is not the only one who played Medea and won acclaim for it. It's this kind of layering that makes "Master Class" so satisfying.
The play is less layered and less successful when it is a portrait of a lonely, tortured woman. As a portrait of the artist and as a plea for excellence, commitment and beauty, "Master Class" succeeds brilliantly.
* "Master Class," Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave., Tuesday-Saturday, 8 p.m., Saturday-Sunday matinees, 2:30 p.m., Sunday, 7:30 p.m. Ends June 25. $28-$35.50. (213) 365-3500 or (714) 740-2000. Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes.
A Center Theatre Group/Mark Taper Forum production. By Terrence McNally. Directed by Leonard Foglia. Sets by Michael McGarty. Costumes by Jane Greenwood. Lighting by Brian MacDevitt. Sound by Jon Gottlieb. Production stage manager Dianne Trulock.