The bass (Ethan Phillips) is dissatisfied with the size of his part. The baritone (Lorenzo Pisoni) is dissatisfied with the size of his part, which in his case prompts him to stuff a small produce section — cucumbers, apples, bananas — down his trousers. The soprano (Dierdre Friel) suddenly declares that her throat is ”closing like a vise” — an affliction no doubt brought on by the arrival of her archrival (Bebe Neuwirth). The tenor (American Pie alum Eddie Kaye Thomas) is obsessed with his historic high F. And the composer, Vincenzo Bellini (Breaking Dawn’s Lee Pace), is eight stanzas away from a nervous breakdown. Terrence McNally’s Golden Age — playing through Jan. 6 at Off Broadway’s Manhattan Theatre Club in its New York premiere — has all the makings of a belly-busting backstage farce. Unfortunately, McNally hasn’t written one.
No playwright loves opera like McNally, a four-time Tony winner whose works include 1989’s diva-obsessed The Lisbon Traviata, 1995’s Tony-winning Maria Callas valentine Master Class, and 2004’s one-act Wagner-focused Prelude & Liebestod. It’s no surprise that McNally has gone back to his favorite subject in Golden Age. He’s also gone back in time — to 1835, for the premiere of Bellini’s final opera, I Puritani, at Paris’ Théàtre-Italien.
But quips about big egos and small endowments can go only so far. (So can jokes about the French; judging by the audience’s reaction, however, those apparently never get old.) Early on, we learn that Bellini is dying — cue the blood-stained handkerchief — and McNally begins to sentimentalize the composer’s every line, soliloquy, and melody line.
Even in Bellini’s poutiest, most self-absorbed moments, Pace is never less than charming. He’s the quintessential tortured artist — unabashedly romantic, hair askew, throwing himself about the stage with abandon, and voraciously devouring Sicilian blood oranges (Bellini’s preferred snack). When he gets ahold of McNally’s monologues, Pace can elevate them into arias: ”People don’t go mad because of a broken heart. They take to their rooms and weep in utter solitude,” he says, reflecting on mad scenes in operas. ”There is no cause for high notes when your heart is broken. The very lowest reaches of the voice are what are called for.”
Less effective are the numerous interior monologues written for Bellini’s companion/sometime lover Florimo (Will Rogers). Their relationship, though fascinating, gets lost amid the backstage hustle and bustle. So does the object of Bellini’s unrequited affection, Neuwirth’s Maria Malibran, a Callas-like star who’s even called ”my divine one.” Even two-time Tony winner Neuwirth, who can land a laugh with a sharpshooter’s precision, ends up looking adrift.
One fabulous in-joke: a late-show cameo by F. Murray Abraham as Gioacchino Rossini. It’s a delight to see him playing an Italian composer who’s slightly more benevolent than Antonio Salieri, the role that won him an Oscar in 1984’s Amadeus. It’s a shame, however, that McNally’s latest operatic ode has less juice than Bellini’s beloved blood oranges. C
(Tickets: NYCityCenter.org or 212-581-1212)