THE BLOG
12/04/2012 10:26 pm ET Updated Feb 03, 2013

First Nighter: Terrence McNally's Opera-Loving Golden Age , Paula Vogel's Civil War Christmas

If you loved F. Murray Abraham as Antonio Salieri, you'll adore him as gout-ridden, late-career Gioacchino Rossini in Terrence McNally's newest opera-oriented play, Golden Age, at the Manhattan Theatre Club's New York City Center Stage 1. Aging composer Rossini surely commands the spotlight when, somewhat late, he joins the other characters darting to and fro on Santo Loquasto's sumptuous notion of a non-green green-room at Paris's Theatre-Italien.

You're likely to get your kicks, too, from many of the other incidents in McNally's fantasy of what may have occurred off-stage the night Vincenzo Bellini's I puritani bowed before an audience previously cool to the Sicilian's works. Yes, there are incidents a-plenty in the two-act piece covering the jam-packed Jan. 24, 1835 evening hours.

What you're not going to get from The Lisbon Traviata-Master Class dramatist is anything that feels as if it's a finished play -- not an atypical situation with McNally. On the other hand, what you will get an excess of is exposition, and not just in the first two scenes, which is normal though not truly desirable for most works where information pertinent to understanding and enjoying what's transpiring requires imparting.

Opera-loving McNally, who knows as much about the musical subject as anyone around, isn't so certain about what his audiences have stored. To bring them up to speed on the opus at hand and everyone associated with it, he keeps the exposition coming throughout the entire play.

Not only do the members of the renowned I puritani quartet -- soprano Giulia Grisi (Dierdre Friel), baritone Antonio Tamburini (Lorenzo Pisoni), tenor Giovanni Battista Rubini (Eddie Kaye Thomas), bass Luigi Lablache (Ethan Phillips) -- repeatedly refer to each other by full name but McNally fills spectators in on, among other topics, librettist Carlo Pepoli's negligible plot as well as the Thomas Cromwell-led 1642-60 English Civil War on which it's based.

Also relayed is the latest report on the damaged voice belonging to renowned mezzo-soprano Maria "La Malibran" Malibran (Bebe Neuwirth). Looking like someone Leonardo da Vinci might have painted), who owns up to the warbling problems herself when she arrives to wish former lover Bellini well. The way she's depicted in the script also suggests she's a proto-Maria Callas, who McNally followers know is a major heartthrob for him.

There is one focal development about which McNally cares but handles without much more finesse than a first-year playwriting student. Before not too much Golden Age time has elapsed, Bellini (Lee Pace, as handsome as Bellini was said to be) emits a tasteful Traviata-like cough. When he does, anyone who's ever watched a second-rate television fatal-disease movie knows worse spells are on the way.

On they come, as Bellini -- tended to by current boyfriend Francesco Florimo (Will Rogers, not so bad-looking himself)) -- shucks them off. Everyone else pretends to believe him, despite understanding that the consumptive 33-year-old is hardly likely to get around to the adaptation of King Lear he divulges he'll tackle next.

In other words, as McNally's characters demonstrate the kind of nerve-motivated activity that might unfold unseen by the audience on any opening night anywhere, McNally is really presenting -- without Bellini actually exhaling his last breath -- one long death scene.

Is that enough to soothe viewers, even as Walter Bobbie directs the cast with the smart tempi of a dedicated Bellini conductor? Is a confrontation between two gorgeously gowned divas -- one known for dramatic excellence but fading vocal luster, one with fewer acting skills but a perfect instrument -- sufficient? Will the boastings of a baritone who stuffs his trousers with oranges and cucumbers to titillate the ladies satisfy? Will Bellini explaining he no longer writes because "I ran out of things to say" sate the on-lookers? How about the will-he-or-won't-he-do-it suspense of tenor Rubini's hitting that ground-breaking "Credeasi misera" high F?

Surely, as played by this cast, pleasures abound -- and that includes young Coco Monroe as a page run ragged by the agitated Bellini crew. This is without mentioning the I puritani score heard when the supposed singers on-stage leave for the unseen Theatre-Italien stage and sound designer Ryan Rumery pipes in a recording or recordings. Who are singing in the foursome's stead? McNally sees to it Callas lets go -- he's written La Malibran as a proto-Callas -- and probably Giuseppe di Stefano is crooning. (Is it the 1953 EMI recording under Tullio Serafin? Maybe).

Incidentally, at one point Bellini, praising what he's hearing from Grisi, describes the singing as "fulsome" and even remarks that the adjective hasn't previously been in his lexicon. Too bad he adds it then. McNally intends to indicate the sound Grisi's producing is fuller than full. Unfortunately, the definition of "fulsome" is "disgusting" or "offensive" -- the last thing a soprano would want said of her chanting. Perhaps he needs to rethink the line.

Anyway, as it stands, Golden Age is far from fulsome, but it's also a good way from dramatically full.

****

For the current holiday season, Paula Vogel's neatly wrapped gift is A Civil War Christmas, an instant season classic presented on yet another one of the stunning New York Theatre Workshop sets, this a dark-wood-many-wooden-chairs surrounding by James Schuette. With director Tina Landau, Vogel has ingeniously brought together a few dozen characters, including Abraham Lincoln (Bob Stillman), Mary Todd Lincoln (Alice Ripley), freed black sergeant Bronson (K. Todd Freeman) and a lost little girl named Jessa (Sumaya Bouhbal), whose paths miraculously cross on Christmas Eve, 1864 and blend into a happy Yuletide ending for all.

Others in the 11-member cast, all of them first-rate singers interpreting numerous traditional songs -- play people like Ulysses Grant (Chris Henry), Robert E. Lee (Sean Allan Krill), John Wilkes Booth (also Krill) and Lincoln household servant Elizabeth Keckley (Karen Kandel).

According to the program, Vogel promised her dying brother Carl she'd "teach the children in the family about America's history." With this dramatic carol, she's done him proud.