On the surface, two of this week's new stage offerings could not be more disparate. One story is mostly set in 15th-century Spain, the other plays out in cosmopolitan New York City and Washington, D.C. Apart from the fact that both shows are performed without intermission, what do these two tales share in common? Simply this: Clandestine sex is the axis upon which both plots turn. Also, each play relies on shoptalk vernacular to advance the action.
Let's consider the more contemporary story first. The five characters in Michael Hollinger's Opus, currently on view in a spiffy production at West End Players Guild, are musicians. They think and talk like musicians. Four of these five are members of a renowned (recordings, world tours) string quartet; the fifth is a former member of that same prestigious group. Playwright Hollinger, himself a violist, knows whereof he writes. To listen to these characters talk is to be admitted entrance into an exclusive world. It matters not if the viewer is familiar with phrases like ma non troppo ("but not too much"). Clearly the characters know what they're saying, and they speak in a relaxed jargon. The intensity of their devotion to classical music carries the story forward. Even the most musically illiterate of viewers can go along for the ride — and a highly enjoyable ride it is.
The West End playing space has been transformed. The proscenium stage is hidden behind black drapes; Opus plays out in the middle of what is normally the auditorium, with viewers seated on three sides. (Before the play begins, a performance by a live string quartet sets the mood, so plan to arrive early.) Deftly directed by Jerry McAdams, the production intrigues from beginning to end. The snatches of chamber music are embracing, the dialogue between the music is often witty.
The four fine male actors in the cast (Dennis L. Folwarczny II, Jonathan Hey, Stephen Peirick, John Wolbers) work smoothly together, but it's the intrusion of a woman that ignites many of the play's fireworks. As the newcomer to the quartet, Caitlin Mickey delivers a pitch-perfect blend of confidence and insecurity. Do we credit Renee Sevier-Monsey's costumes for the decision to dress Mickey in a striking scarlet gown for the climactic Beethoven concert at the White House? It is a cunning choice.*BREAK
A second story of clandestine love, Conviction at New Jewish Theatre, also relies on a specific, if more rarefied, vocabulary. Set during one of the Spanish Inquisitions, the plot concerns Andres Gonzales, a priest whose faith is tested when he falls in love with a 22-year-old Jewish beauty named Isabel.
While any viewer can follow the general arc of the story — i.e., that flesh will often trump faith — clearly there are nuances here that are lost to the viewer who is not familiar with Jewish traditions, theology and nomenclature. For it turns out that our protagonist is not merely a man in love. This Catholic is a converted Jew whose newfound love with Isabel leads him back to Judaism. In his duplicitous new life, Andres is "a priest by day, a Jew in the night." But some of the specifics of that duplicity are dense. The suggestion that anyone, regardless of religious background, can appreciate Conviction equally, is myopic.
In 2010 this Israeli script by Oren Neeman was staged in New York with three actors portraying multiple roles. Now the play's translator, actor Ami Dayan, is touring Conviction throughout the U.S. as a one-actor vehicle. Regardless of one's admiration for Dayan, the onstage absence of the beautiful Isabel is felt. Andres tells us, for instance, that her body "exceeds in beauty the whole of God's creation." OK, if he says so. Imagine a stage adaptation of the legendary love affair between Abelard and Heloise without Heloise, and — in terms of sheer theater — you'll know what's missing here.