There is refrigerator magnet wisdom which dictates,”Growing old is inevitable; growing up is optional,” and for the titular subjects of Ronald Harwood’s play Quartet at TheatreWorks New Milford, it is also a bit hysterical.
We meet our featured four in a home for retired opera singers in Kent, England which is preparing to host their annual concert for Giuseppe Verdi’s birthday (October 10th if you want to get him something nice). They find that wherever you go, there you are as the arrival of a familiar resident unearths old tensions and unresolved relationship rifts.
Directed beautifully by Jane Farnol, the actors completely explore these elderly lives full to the edges, developing not only a fully realized world, but crafting characters that, while on the surface are simply “dramatic,” bring nuanced humanity to their story. Our fearless/fearful foursome examine the true questions of viability and worth of a life once revered, on the brink of artistic obsolescence.
The quaint space, preciously designed by Jim Hipp, complete with a tea nook and trellis, and supported by the lovely lighting design of Nick Kaye, sets the audience up to enter a be-doilied universe of classical music, polite Britishness, and erudite social commentary. We are soon knocked out of any preconceived ideas of elegance and maturity by Wilfred Bond, played by Ron Malyszka, whose profound grandpa sweater belies his profane antics. An audience (somehow) loves a dirty old man, and Malyszka makes him endearing.
Wilfred spends much of the play lasciviously accosting an oblivious Cecily Robson, played by Jody Bayer in an airy outfit befitting her outlook, and it is riotously funny rather than pearl-clutchingly offensive. Bayer is an exercise in composure, compassion, and comedy, as Cecily slips closer to dementia, she maintains presence and connection with spirit and humor.
Making his debut not only in this play, but on any adult acting stage, Timothy Breslin’s portrayal of the straight laced and anxious Reginald Paget serves as a fitting foil for Wilfred, and remains so throughout the majority of the show. His riotous rift with Angelique the unseen marmalade maiden is a warm up to the depths of emotions he will soon be forced to access as his ex-wife arrives as a new resident of the home.
When we meet Dandy Barrett as the grandest dame Jean Horton, the verbal tennis intensifies and it is glorious, for her presence is as noteable on the boards as it is on the page. Barrett exudes magnificence from her coif to her costume to her cane, and any precursory conflict will be dwarfed by the emotional battles she will bring to bear. Most significant of these is her declaration that she will not sing “Bella figlia dell'amore,” the vocal quartet from Verdi's Rigoletto for the concert and by which this particular quartet was renowned.
Barrett brings such elegance and pathos to a role easily dismissed as diva. While Jean was once the top of her craft, the world of opera demands a tremulous balance of the stability of age and the suppleness of youth, and when Jean edged out of that window, she is emotionally (and physically) hobbled. The counter of this is Bayer, who, while affecting a hunch and mental scrambles, maintains a spirited spryness and optimism, despite Cecily’s journey down the same narrow career path. Even in their polar-opposite presentations, Malyszka and Paget’s passionate pontifications about age, particularly during a Wilfred’s Act I monologue, reverberated with the audience’s own ideas of advanced age, propelling an elderly gentleman to audibly comment, “are they talking about me?”
There were some steps in this production that did overcomplicate the otherwise easy flow. An Act II set change seemed unreasonably long, and the characters’ extended interaction with unseen characters in the final scene distracted from the march to the conclusion. Whether or not this was an intentional writing choice, it played awkwardly. While Harwood has intensely poignant dialogue (Jean’s monologue is exquisite), his finale lacks satisfying closure. As the cast needed to lip-sync the climactic operatic performance (for apparently the actors are not, in actuality, opera legends), it flew in the face of the major action of the play where they concluded to sing it. It would be interesting to see this finale with a cast of true opera singers. This, however, is merely an inherent flaw in the show’s construction, and not the production. Mary Kimball’s impeccable costuming throughout, the musical direction of Susan Pettibone, and the four actors’ commitment, even with stink bugs lofting on Bayer in the full center spotlight, did all they could to pull off the feat and make the concert believable.
Quartet at TheatreWorks New Milford is a touching exploration of self worth, aging, and the importance of singing your truth in the last act of life in full voice and surrounded by those who can harmonize with you. Bravo!
TheatreWorks New Milford’s production of Quartet ran from April 26 to May 18, 2019. Look for their upcoming production of Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike by Christopher Durang, directed by Jocelyn Beard, from July 12 through August 3. For more information, visit www.theatreworks.us or by calling the box office at 860-350-6863. TheatreWorks New Milford is located at 5 Brookside Ave, New Milford, CT 06776