Dissonance by Damian Lanigan. Directed by Amanda Charlton
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
"...a love affair - not date rape..."
Daniel Gerroll and Thomas Sadoski as James and Hal; photo: Joan Marcus
Dissonance is the sound of conflict. Weíre all familiar with it in some form or other. Unlike harmony, through which two or more tones are struck that complement one another, dissonance takes the same attack but places sounds with no complimentary notes together to create the sense of chaos. Both variations are natural in the world and in music. Both are resident in this new play.
Using the opening phrases of Mozartís C-Major Quartet, K. 465, known as the Dissonance Quartet, to strike an opening figure in the darkness we are given the key to the play that follows. Four musicians, three men and a woman, are preparing for a Carnegie Hall concert celebrating their ten harmonious years together making glorious music. Their program covers the span of the romantic quartet - Mozart to Britten, 18th century to 20th century. They are a mis-matched group. The Bradley Quartet is lead by James Bradley, first violinist, and teacher of both the second violinist and the cellist, both Americans. James is definitely the three bís of chamber music: British, brittle and bitter. He has had an affair with Beth, the cellist, who has also had an affair with Hal, the second chair violin.
Hal is prone to contradiction in his relationship with his mentor. Tempo and style are his weapons of choice in his rehearsal relationship with James. Beth is compliant. She will play in any mode and at any pace the others set. Paul, the viola player in the quartet takes her attitude one step further. He obeys the whims of the "captain," James. He suffers the nasty viola jokes with good humor and buoys up the spirits of his co-creators of the music. The dissonance of James and Hal in their unsteady relationship is underscored here by the counterpoint of Paul and the intended harmony of Beth. This ship is foundering on the lack of human sympathy, the loss of melodic commonality.
Into the mix comes Jonny, a rock star with a passion for good music but no knowledge of what its really all about. He is being tutored by Beth who, for the first time, finds out what the love of music can lead to in a relationship that has no true basis in fact. An already volatile situation within the confines of the Bradley Quartet is brought to a new pitch, a new high note emotionally.
With generous musical excerpts from their program, the Mozart, the Britten and especially the Borodin String Quartet No. 2 (musical fans will recognize this as the source for the song "And This is My Beloved" from Kismet) the passions of these five souls are revealed in an excellent evening of theater in the maiden voyage, theatrically, of novelist Damian Lanigan. In two hours and twenty minutes we wend our way through a week in the lives of musicians at odds with their music and the forces that surround their music-making. In many ways it is a devastating experience, and yet it is a luscious and literate comedy.
Daniel Gerroll plays James and his performance is so bitchy (another b) and beautifull rendered that long before his deepest secrets are revealed we already know him through and through. Here is a man jealous of his students, overwhelmed by the success of his work and unable to deal with the conflicts he cannot even admit exist. Gerroll gives every element of his complex personality the airing and the visibility we need to understand him. The merest gesture, grabbing his hat off the rack, for example, is an expression of his characterís emotions. He does it superbly.
Alicia Witt is a revelation as Beth. Having only seen her in a few films and one television series her presence on the Nikos Stage at Williamstown is proof that here is an actress who can play the full gamut of parts, the entire history of emotion. While she doesnít play her cello (none of the actors play their instruments except for the rock star), we assume she does and we believe she can do it beautifully. That is in her acting. That is in her physical relationship with her instrument. That is exquisite.
Thomas Sadoski is wonderful as Hal, giving vent to his anger, to his self-pity and his personal faith in himself as a musician. Rufus Collins makes Paul a pitifully sweet man and, in a modestly surprising turnabout, into a sweetly pitying person who could be the best friend anyone ever had.
As Jonny, Patch Darragh is the odd note. He provides a strong other voice in opposition to the quartet. He does it with so much ease and grace that he makes the world of pop music, with its instant millionaires and constant self-indulgence, seem like the place to be.
The five of them, under the wonderful guidance of director Amanda Charlton, play their peculiarly dissonant quintet-tale out with the rehearsed perfection demanded by the script. Even the blush of Schubert injected into the second act manages to point out the emotional power of what all five characters so dearly love, even more than one another, the power and the sexual ecstasy of music.
Andrew Laytonís set is wonderful, flexible, and an ideal setting for this jewel of a play. Jennifer Caprioís costumes suit the characters well and Marcus Doshiís costumes enhance them.
For the first full production of the Williamstown season, this is a great start to a promising summer. A complex and demanding play with a fine company performing their orchestrated tasks in perfect harmony, the work will set you wondering about the "more intimate vision" of music and musicians, and about their relationships, the next time you pop that CD into the player.
Alicia Witt plays Beth; photo: Joan Marcus
Patch Darragh and Rufus Collins as Jonny and Paul; photo: Joan Marcus
Dissonance plays on the Nikos Stage at the Williamstown Theatre Festival through July 8. For tickets and schedules call the box office at 413-597-3400.