As any Colony Theatre regular can tell you, Burbank’s premier regional theater has had crowd-pleasing hit after hit with its series of “odd couple” two-character plays, from Rounding Third to Trying to Educating Rita to Visiting Mr. Green to Grace & Glorie to Shooting Star to Old Wicked Songs. That’s why, as a longtime Colony fan who loved each and every one of this magnificent seven, it pains me to report that their latest two-hander, The Morini Strad, failed to capture or hold my attention despite the best efforts of all concerned.
Mariette Hartley stars as Erica Morini, a 90something once-renowned former concert violinist now living a reclusive life on New York’s Upper East Side. David Nevell costars as Brian Skarstad, the violin maker (luthier for those in the know) whom Erica has summoned to her elegant Fifth Avenue apartment with a request she feels only he can fulfill—to repair the $3.75 million Davidoff Stradivarius she has inadvertently damaged, and to do so in the utmost secret.
Like the considerably older halves of the two-character casts of Trying, Visiting Mr. Green, Grace & Glorie, and Old Wicked Songs, Madame Morini is a crotchety, cranky pain in the derriere, but not nearly as fun to be around as her predecessors, nor does she appear to soften much as the play progresses, a prerequisite of a genre in which the friction of opposites repelling each other must give way to grudging admiration to the heartwarming friendship that makes sentimental theatergoers like this one get out our Kleenex as we’ve been hoping all along to do.
Brian has his own set of problems, having abandoned his passion for violin-making in favor of the more lucrative job of repairing old Strads, so that when Erica asks him to find a buyer for The Morini Strad, the very real possibility of pocketing a half-a-million-buck minimum commission makes Brian none too pleased when its owner informs him she has changed her mind and wants to keep it.
If this sounds like not a lot to build a ninety-five minute one-act around, you would be right, and neither the venerable Hartley nor the dynamic Nevell are able to overcome the ultimate dullness of playwright Willy Holtzman’s script, despite their best efforts or those of director Stephanie Vlahos.
One very bright spot are the live violin performances of fourteen-year-old virtuoso Geneva Lewis, seen mostly in shadow in all-too-brief glimpses of Erica’s younger self. In fact, the only moment in which The Morini Strad truly took flight for this reviewer was at its very end, when Lewis got to perform center stage. Only then did the tears come, and justifiably so.
Scenic designer Stephen Gifford’s elegant set suggests the play’s several locales, from Erica’s apartment to Brian’s violin workshop to his apartment to a recital hall to Erica’s hospital room. (Yes, the program does give away a major plot point in listing each scene’s setting.) Kate Bergh costumes each character in ways befitting their personalities and tastes. Sound designer Drew Dalzell recreates an old vinyl LP recording of one of Erica’s past performances in addition to tying scenes together with appropriate classical music performances during the production’s very long between-scene blackouts. Not surprisingly, MacAndME’s properties design and set dressing are another terrific creation of this Colony team. Finally, as gorgeous as Jared A. Sayeg’s lighting design is, the audience spends much of The Morini Strad in a darkened theater with only small stage areas (those where Erica and David find themselves conversing) lit with a golden glow, which only adds to the play’s lulling effect. Ashley Boehne Ehlers is production stage manager.
Having loved each and every one of The Morini Strad’s forerunners, I had every hope that lightning would once again strike with this latest Colony Theatre odd-couple two-hander. Though cheers greeted Hartley’s and Nevell’s work at curtain call, I couldn’t help wishing I’d seen these two performers in a different play.
Colony Theatre, 555 North Third Street, Burbank.
November 18, 2012
Photos: Michael Lamont