She strides onto the stage without fanfare, expensively attired in a severe black pantsuit accessorized with a tastefully elegant scarf. "No applause," she cautions the audience. "We're here to work. You're not in a theater. This is a classroom." And so, without so much as a wink the play's conceits are promptly established in the first minute. Because of course we are not in a classroom, and we are in a theater. Nor does anyone who attends the current Stray Dog staging of Terrence McNally's Master Class need to worry about working very hard. The heavy lifting is done onstage by actors, singers, a pianist. Mostly we just sit back and have a rip-roaring good time. McNally's portrait of the artist as an aging narcissist veers just wide enough from conventional theater norms so as to offer two hours of refreshing originality.
Inspired by some master classes that renowned soprano Maria Callas conducted at New York's Juilliard School in the early 1970s, McNally's paean to the celebrated diva at times feels like a one-person show inhabited by six actors. As the students sing, Callas draws into herself and relives her tumultuous past. Always her thoughts return to her celebrated affair with shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis, who crassly debased opera (and, implicitly, his mistress) as "boring shit music." Though it might be true that opera appeals to more refined ears, one need not be a lover of opera to enjoy Master Class. McNally has cunningly crafted a script that captivates opera buffs and neophytes alike.
Callas hurls insults both at her students (who are primarily here to be abused) and at the audience as naturally as if she were chucking down a glass of ouzo. Though it's clear that McNally revered her — or at least the idea of her — his portrait is hardly flattering or even sympathetic. It's not so much that Callas is intentionally cruel; rather, she is so self-absorbed that she cannot avoid gaffes and blunt stumbles. It is a revelation to observe how one so accomplished can remain so obtuse and ungenerous.
"Forget all about me," Callas instructs us as the class begins. "I'm invisible." Well, hardly. Callas was American by birth, Greek by heritage and temperament, and timidity was not among her attributes. Lavonne Byers' portrayal of La Divina is as handsomely accessorized as is her outfit: the folded hands that might strike at any minute; the eyeglasses that could so easily soar across the stage; an outstretched, switchblade finger that threatens to become a stiletto. A sense of implicit peril hovers about her, even through her forced smile. But perhaps her most revealing moment occurs when Callas re-creates her entrance in Bellini's La Sonnambula, and her masklike face is wracked by what we can only assume was a lifetime of torment.
Yet Byers is not doing an impersonation. From the moment she enters, she is building to the moment when Master Class ceases to be about Callas and instead crescendos into a cadenza about the Muse, that selfish creator who might sing opera or sculpt marble or pen plays. "If I have seemed harsh," the diva defensively explains as the evening begins its coda, "it is because I have been harsh with myself." And what artist cannot relate to that notion?
Martin Fox is an effectively understated piano accompanist. As the first sacrificial lamb led to the slaughter of Callas' scrutiny, Jessica Tilghman is so gullible, you can almost envision her succulently roasting on a spit. In Act Two Jon Garrett fills the stage with song as a brash Mario Lanza-wannabe. But then the production, which was directed by Gary F. Bell, falters. Although it remains consistently entertaining, by the time Leslie Sikes' second soprano jousts with Callas, Master Class has left the realm of banter and moved on to dangerous places where one misspoken word draws blood. The stakes need to be ratcheted up several notches, to a point where the audience is watching with breathless anticipation, and they aren't. Which perhaps accounts for its too-abrupt end.