note: entire contents copyright 2005 by Carl A. Rossi
Reginald Paget … Philip Pleasants
Cecily Robson … Jill Tanner
Wilfred Bond … Roger Forbes
Jean Horton … Maeve McGuire
There are a few performances left of Ronald Harwood’s QUARTET at the Merrimack Repertory Theatre before its production moves on to the Studio Arena Theatre in Buffalo and I urge you to see it if you already haven’t for this old-fashioned comedy-drama is already one of the year’s best in several departments. Today’s playwrights, directors and actors will especially benefit from its lessons: Act One plays out in one unbroken scene with neither flashbacks nor monologues to the audience and its expositions cunningly slip by (Act Two is more episodic; its expositions, more obvious); director Gavin Cameron-Webb has wrapped QUARTET in a texture so palpable that one can almost roll its fabric between one’s fingers, and his four actors modestly define the word Ensemble. In William Goldman’s THE SEASON, his candid look at the 1967-68 Broadway season, Mr. Goldman writes of Peter Nichols’ JOE EGG, “I’ve been waiting a long time for JOE EGG … It’s the reason I’ve sat through all those stiffs, bolted all those rotten Times Square dinners, battled crowds to get through the lobby before the play, fought for taxis after. I’ve been waiting all this time for JOE EGG to come along and do its demonstration, so that I could sit back and say to myself, “Oh, sure, that’s it.” I have struck similar gold with Mr. Harwood’s achievement and rejoice for similar reasons --- QUARTET, too, is a worthwhile It.
QUARTET is a variation on the putting-on-a-show theme, set in an English retirement home primarily for opera singers. Three of its residents --- Reginald Paget (tenor), Cecily Robson (contralto) and Wilfred Bond (baritone) --- are long-time colleagues now sharing a cozy co-existence; the still-dapper Reginald is working on his autobiography and the widower Wilfred is still half in love with Cecily, a full-figured dowager with a lusty past. They have their senior moments: Reginald rages against an offstage nurse who gives him apricot jam instead of marmalade at breakfast; Wilfred hobbles with a cane and dozes off during conversations; the two men watch over Cecily who is going senile and risks being committed, elsewhere. The home’s newest arrival turns out to be Jean Horton (soprano) who was briefly married to Reginald, ages ago (she, too, sports a cane and is on a waiting list for a hip replacement); old grievances flare up between tenor and soprano but are buffeted by contralto and baritone. When they are requested to sing the RIGOLETTO quartet for the home’s annual Verdi birthday bash, three singers are for it, one against; the evening ends in a musical twist that would have you saluting this triumph of spirit over flesh were you not already cheering, instead. Mr. Harwood has created four portraits with a wry tenderness that never turns condescending or maudlin (“NSP” --- “No Self Pity” --- is the group’s motto); when the Quartet is performed, you see four emptied souls suddenly filled, again: the vintage within had defined them in their prime, not their own mortal vessels.
Gavin Cameron-Webb’s subtle, clear-eyed direction makes the Merrimack production one to savor like a favorite book; the only way an evening can be this rich, this effortless, is to dig past the topsoil to the more fertile earth underneath; to behold the performances of Roger Forbes, Maeve McGuire, Philip Pleasants and Jill Tanner is to witness careful planting and collaborative nurturing that results in four definitive mid-winter blooms (the actors’ understated give-and-take is evident whenever one of them is the focus of attention; the other three listen politely as the English do and in doing so, never upstage the speaker). The real-life chances of a tenor, soprano, baritone and contralto who once wowed the opera world together being reunited under one final roof are remote but Messrs. Harwood and Cameron-Webb and their cast make QUARTET an aging artist’s dream come true where sex is no longer a bothersome threat and the sharp corners of colliding egos have long since been rubbed away. Short of dying onstage while giving an inspired performance, what better way is there for a performing artist to quit the scene?
Bill Clarke’s setting is lovely and detailed, as well, and having the two scene changers dressed as brisk, efficient nurses is bonus casting --- as with everything else, there is an art to scene changing and doing it in character helps retain a production’s illusion.