By Karen Isaacs
Sharon Playhouse is closing its season with a gentle comedy, Quartet, about four elderly British opera singers spending their last years at a retirement home for musicians.
Some of you may remember the film of the same name in 2013, directed by Dustin Hoffman and starring a pantheon of British actors – Maggie Smith, Tom Courtenay, Billy Connolly, Pauline Collins and Michael Gambon among others.
Though I had seen the play before the film including in the Berkshires with Robert Vaughn in the cast, I had not seen it since the film came out. What struck me is the added pleasures of the film, and not just because of the stellar cast. The film which was written by the playwright Robert Harwood included other characters and information.
The play has just four characters – each an opera singer (one a star) who at one time sang the quartet from Verdi’s Rigoletto to great acclaim. The recording has been reissued on CD. Three of them are living at this retirement home. It is clear that many of the retired musicians are at the home “on charity” and one of the big events is the Gala on Oct. 10, the birthday of Giuseppe Verdi. In the film this is a fund-raising gala for the home but in the play that is not so clear.
The three current residents – none of have been there very long – are Reginald (Joseph Hindy) a tenor who is actually paying his own way; Cecily (Patrician McAneny) a mezzo and Wilfred Bond (Greg Mullavey) a baritone who played Rigoletto. As the play begins, Cecily discovers that a new arrival is expected and from the staff excitement, it must be someone very well known.
They soon discover it is Jean (Elizabeth Franz) who was the biggest star of them all but who suddenly stopped singing at a young age. She also was once married to Reginald who is not happy about her arrival.
The remainder of the two act play focuses on the interactions among the four of them, the revealing of some regrets and secrets and the efforts of the three to convince Jean to participate in the gala and recreate the famous quartet.
The movie fleshed out both the characters and the others residing the home.
None of them planned on spending their “golden years” like this and all are afraid that one of them will develop dementia and be forced to leave the home. They are particularly worried about Cecily.
Each of the four characters is a “type” – Cecily is flighty, forgetful, full of life and obviously was somewhat sexually promiscuous. Wilfred plays the clown with lots of sexual innuendo though he was happily (and faithfully) married. Reginald never got over Jean and has spent his life reading and quietly contemplating the world. Jean is still the diva though she hasn’t sung for years. Despite a number of marriages, she has no funds left.
This production directed by John Simpkins has both strengths and weaknesses. First, I had not recalled the play as being either so long or so talky. I’m not sure if the movie has spoiled the play for me, or if this production needed a spark. I also noticed how quiet this production is. It is set in a retirement/assisted living home with musicians around; even though the four congregate in a salon you would expect to hear ambient noise and music. Yet it is very, very quiet. Some classical music is played before the curtain goes up for each act, but you would think the four were totally isolated from everyone. Perhaps this was a conscious decision by Simpkins to reinforce the solitariness of old age.
I do applaud the scenic design by Michael Schweikart and the costumes by Michelle Eden Humphrey.
The cast is good but sometimes it sounded as if all were talking much too loudly. While Elizabeth Franz is the best known of the performers, I actually preferred the work of the two men – Joseph Hindy as Reginald and Greg Mullavey as Wilfred. Each seemed to fully embody their characters and gave each a depth that the script did not provide. Patricia McAneny as Cecily is hindered by the role’s single note. Franz gives us a good Jean but neither a regal nor imperious Jean.
So while I cannot rave about this production, if you want a pleasant afternoon evening including a drive into the lovely Litchfield hills of Connecticut, you will find Quartet, a nice addition to the day.
Quartet is at Sharon Playhouse, Sharon, CT. through Aug. 28. For tickets or information, call 860-364-7469 or visit sharonplayhouse.org.