Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, July, 2007
To my great surprise, I got to see Dissonance on the Nikos Stage at the WTF. And I liked it very much. Coincidentally, exactly a week earlier my younger son had turned to me and asked “What does dissonance mean?” And even though I know the answer, I found it rather a hard concept to explain. Dissonance is the opposite of harmony, but it is more than that. Music is a force of nature that we use and enjoy, but cannot own. We learn which tones harmonize and which are dissonant, but we cannot change their relationships, they just are. Dissonance has a viscerally jarring effect because it is an audible, physical expression of discord in creation.
For many millennia humankind believed in the Music of the Spheres. In this theory harmony was essential and dissonance, literally, cataclysmic. If the sun, moon, planets, stars, each of whom were believed to orbit the earth on their own separate spheres, failed to exist harmoniously, well, the end times would be nigh!
In Damian Lanigan’s play, the dissonance amongst the members of the Bradley String Quartet means the end of their time playing together, just as they prepare for their tenth anniversary concert at New York’s prestigious Carnegie Hall. The play takes place over the week during which they are preparing for that performance and allows us to witness bits of their corporate and personal lives.
James Bradley (Daniel Gerroll) was a violinist of whom much was expected when he was young. He resents the disappearance of that youthful promise of international greatness and his middle-aged life as merely the leader and first violin of the Bradley Quartet. His former students Hal (Thomas Sadoski) who plays second violin (is there a sadder title in the world to hold?) and Beth (Alicia Witt), who plays cello, have settled for careers in James’ shadow rather than seeking out prominence on their own. Paul (Rufus Collins), the violist, renders himself all but invisible as he panders to James tyranny and allows himself to be the butt of endless jokes about viola players.
The play would be nothing but four classical musicians bickering in a rehearsal room if it were not for Beth’s invitation to teach a big rock star named Jonny (Patch Darragh), late of the group The Sweater Girls, about classical music. I hasten to explain that Jonny is not the source of the group’s dissonance, that has existed for years, but his relationship with Beth and his eventual request to attend a rehearsal of the Quartet, pushes their collaboration to its final, clashing, coda.
Lanigan was quoted in a recent Berkshire Eagle interview as saying that classical music was “…the one thing that I most like thinking about and talking about.” It is easy to believe that listening to the passionate words about music and life that he puts into his characters mouths. And I believe that he has fairly accurately captured the lives of professional, classical musicians. Where I think he is a bit at sea is in his depiction of Jonny and the worlds of popular music and rock music. That is less important since Jonny is merely there to add counterpoint to the discussion of life and art and life as an artist.
Gerroll really anchors the play as the sharp-tongued and manipulative James, who has spent his life setting this particular dissonance in motion. But he also makes James sympathetic and believable. His final moment on the stage was a moving, silent one.
Collins provides much of the comic relief in the scenes where the Quartet is squabbling together in rehearsal. His real role in holding them all together isn’t revealed until the very end of the play, and then the subtle shadings of Collins’ performance are revealed too.
I question whether both Sadoski and Witt weren’t too young to be cast as decade-long members of the Bradley Quartet. Sadoski just passed, but Witt looked impossibly young and beautiful. The oldest I could believe that Beth was was 32, which it turns out is Witt’s real age, which would have made her 22 and just out of college when James chose her. It could have happened, particularly if they were romantically involved or if he hoped that they would be. Some of my colleagues in their reviews have mentioned a relationship between James and Beth, but I saw no evidence.
Now this is a ticklish subject because Witt gives a very, very fine performance. There is no doubt that she understands Beth and plays here well, and I would hope that that was why she was cast, but I can’t help thinking that her youth and beauty, she is almost a fantasy goddess with luminous skin and gorgeous natural red hair, actually landed her the role and it was just dumb luck that she ended up being so darned good in it. And I am not saying that cellists can’t be good looking. I wouldn’t have wanted to see anyone but Witt in that role and yet I wish that Witt had been just as talented and half as beautiful because I am sick and tired of seeing only impossibly young gorgeous women presented as possible objects of men’s attentions. Everyone wants Beth – Paul wants Beth, Jonny wants Beth, and, if my colleagues are right, James wants or once wanted Beth. If Witt was less lovely it would possible to believe that they all want her because of the fine person and artist she is and not for her physical beauty alone.
All that being said, I loved how Lanigan made Beth and Jonny’s passion about their art first and foremost. They fall in love because they both love music and making music.
One of my companions at Dissonance remarked that it is very hard to play a rock star when you aren’t one, and I agree with that. Darragh works hard to play Jonny the way Lanigan has written him, as just a guy who happened to make it big in the alarmingly seductive world of commercial popular music. Of course all celebrities are just people who have succeeded, due to talent or fluke of fate, but there is generally some spark of uniqueness or greatness about them. If that special quality would show anywhere it would appear when Jonny is singing (Darragh is the only actor who actually plays an instrument and sings on stage) and it doesn’t.
I did miss the life performance of the classical pieces the Bradley Quartet is supposedly playing. The actors apparently had lessons from real musicians in how to hold, handle, and clean the instruments they would be handling, but they never struck me as anything more than actors holding, handling and cleaning instruments they couldn’t and didn’t play. Director Amanda Charlton, who has done an excellent job utilizing Andrew Layton’s flexible setting, uses recordings of the pieces the actors would be playing if they could during scene changes. The lights often come up on the rehearsal room with the actors posed as if delivering a final stroke of their bows as the recorded music ends. It was the best way the situation could possibly be handled, but it still left me unsatisfied.
The String Quartet is a fairly obvious metaphor for any collaborative creative effort from marriage to rugby. Four individual instruments tuned to slightly staggered pitches, played by four unique and distinct artists, blend in a way that creates something much greater and more beautiful than what any one instrument and artist could be on his or her own. It is greatly to Lanigan’s credit, and this is his first work for the theatre, that his dialogue, while laden with Important Statements about life and art, never sounds preachy. He has created five individual voices for his characters, all of them interesting. There is a lot of humor in the play, and a lot of drama.
All quibbles aside, Dissonance is a very enjoyable evening of theatre being given a thoroughly professional production by the WTF. I was delighted that I had the opportunity to see it, and I offer this review as a small token of gratitude for the intellectual pleasure and genuine entertainment it gave me.
Dissonance runs through July 8 on the Nikos Stage at the Williamstown Theatre Festival. The show runs tow hours and twenty minutes with one intermission and is suitable for ages 13 and up. If you have a young and ardent musician in your household this would be a great play for you to see together. For tickets and information call the box office at 413-597-3400.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2007