NEW YORK — In one beautifully simple statement, the violin maker in Willy Holtzman's new play "The Morini Strad," crystalizes the unlikely friendship at the center of the piece.
"I'm just an artisan," he says unapologetically. "Not an artist."
An absolute contrast in style and sensibility creates a difficult divide between the main characters in this clever, if at times ploddingly cerebral, one-act drama.
In bridging that divide, Holtzman's characters ultimately come to grips with their own regrets, and each helps the other find direction.
The play, which opened Tuesday at Primary Stages at 59E59 Theaters, was inspired by the true and mysterious story of Vienna-born concert violinist Erica Morini, a child prodigy and classical music sensation of the early 20th century who lived out her senior years as a recluse in New York.
The play's title is a reference to Morini's famous Stradivarius violin, which was worth millions and made news in the 1990s as Morini lay in her hospital deathbed.
The violinist is portrayed with great force and flare by Mary Beth Peil, seen most recently in the latest Broadway revival of Stephen Sondheim's "Follies" and also as a regular on TV's "The Good Wife."
Holtzman introduces us to his steadily engaging characters in a particularly effective split scene. Morini conducts a music lesson in her posh parkside apartment as the violin maker simultaneously addresses the audience from his workshop.
Speaking intermittently, the venerable diva barks instructions at her young student, while Brian, the aforementioned artisan – played convincingly Michael Laurence – pontificates about the craft of making violins and the art of playing them.
The two are thrown together when Morini enlists Brian's services in repairing a scrape on her virtually priceless instrument, which she intends to sell before dying.
Holtzman's unusual historical premise, and his semi-fictional handling of it, provides a lot for the actors and audience to mull, primarily Morini's unique experience as a very young woman whose virtuosity set the then male-dominated, classical music world on fire.
The play's subject also has the built-in attraction of the music itself, which Holtzman uses in several entertaining, though occasionally clumsy, interludes.
The cast is joined by violin soloist Hanah Stuart, who plays a young Morini in several recurring, dreamlike sequences.
Under the direction of Casey Childs, Stuart's masterful solos certainly heighten the enjoyment of this production, but at times they seem oddly disconnected from the flow of the narrative, with awkwardly abrupt entrances and exits.
Neil Patel's set design succeeds for the most part, with artful projections by Jan Hartley. But the production team fails to capitalize on an obvious opportunity to use Morini's home to expound on her oddball personality – instead placing her in an apartment that is generally nondescript.
Peil, a 1985 Tony nominee for her role in "The King And I," delivers a lively performance and forges impressive chemistry with Laurence.
"The Morini Strad," at Primary Stages through April 28, is smart and well-researched, though disappointingly predictable at turns. The dialogue between Holtzman's characters too often spells out for the audience their motives and apprehensions, instead of a more implicit approach that leaves something to interpretation.