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Doing Good Work 

Our lives' work should be other people, not some artistic magnum Opus.

click to enlarge Imitate Beethoven’s art, not his personality. - YOUNG KWAK
  • Young Kwak
  • Imitate Beethoven’s art, not his personality.

If a great artist stops loving other people, is he still a great artist? Do you have a worthwhile legacy if you created great art but everyone remembers you as an expletive?

Ultimately, Opus says no. But Michael Hollinger’s play about a classical quartet springs surprises along the way: The perfectionist who seems self-centered and irresponsible may not be the one who’s getting in the way of sublime music-making.

The opening minutes drop half a dozen bombshells.

The supposedly elegant process of music-making turns out to be a lot like making sausage. There’s been a lineup change in the quartet. Then there isn’t. Then there is.

Opus, Hollinger seems to signal, isn’t going to be some classical snooze fest. Personalities will be attacked and opinions will be blunt.

Maybe the playwright is compensating for his subject matter. I mean, let’s face it … Opus — it’s so highbrow, even the title’s in Latin.

So maybe you’re not in the mood for refined and effete tonight. Maybe you like sports, food, sex and the Beach Boys a lot more than you like classical music. Well, a couple of guys in this fictional quartet would agree with you. Give ‘em a baseball game on TV, they’re just as happy as they are playing Bartok or Brahms.

These four middle-aged guys (plus one female interloper) are like any bickering family of co-workers. They’re just trying to create good and beautiful things while putting up with one another’s absolutely infuriating flaws.

Flaws like the flighty, artsy, ineffable irritations of Dorian, the quartet’s violist (played here by Patrick Tread way).

Dorian revels in music some days and is disgusted by it on others. With fingers fluttering near his forehead and a faraway look in his eye, Treadway delivers the opening scene’s paean to music’s beauty: “The whole thing rises,” he says, “floats together, falls back, arches upward, no one leading, no one following, it’s just … pulsating. Like it’s alive.”

Cracking jokes about being off his meds, Treadway delivers all the facets of a man who sniffs and cuddles violins (he loves them so much) but who can, nevertheless, be such a pill sometimes.

The play opposes two “buggy” madmen: one whose obsessions serve the art form, and one who’s mostly obsessed with elevating himself above others and even above the music they play. As the group’s perfectionistic leader, John Oswald is fussy enough without needing to turn on the mad-scientist mannerisms. Yes, Elliott is high-strung, demanding and intense. But in a drama for five hands like this one — intimate, psychological, refined — the grimaces and grasping fingers seem too jarring. Yet in the hiring scene — allowing a new musician into what has been a closed circle of four egotists — Oswald also displays more than Elliott’s usual phony charm. It’s a rounded portrait, but with the darker corners etched too deeply.

In the underwritten part of the group’s second violinist — laid-back, divorced, on the prowl — Tony Caprile manages to show that non-perfectionists love their music, too. As the young woman who has to start playing along (literally) in a middle-aged-man’s world, Bethany Hart delivers an elbows-in, ramrod-straight, not-too-deferential performance. She conveys nervousness while also making clear that Grace is no pushover: She’ll make her own decisions, thanks.

In his best local performance, Dave Rideout (as the quartet’s cellist) isn’t just a one-dimensional mediator — he’s a calming influence, yes, but he also shows us why keeping matters in perspective is so important to him. Haggard and snarky for much of the night, he springs to life in the conclusion, demonstrating where Carl’s true passions lie.

That conclusion tips toward the melodramatic: Would the startling news really be delivered just before the big concert? And would the career-altering decision really be made immediately after it?

Opus, at least, is crammed with incidents — many of them comic, as we watch the bickering of a dysfunctional musical family. Director Jadd Davis could quicken some of the blackouts between those incidents, but it’s to his credit that the musical excerpts are performed realistically (and briefly) enough that we can easily imagine that we’re watching actual professional musicians.

They play together so cooperatively, so generously, reminding us that our work lies in being generous to others — even if our kindnesses are ephemeral, even if they’re like diminishing chords of music in the vast recesses of a concert hall, fading far away.

Opus • Wed-Fri 7:30 pm, Sat 2 pm and 7:30 pm, through Feb. 5 • $18-$22; $13-$16, matinees; $10-$12, students and teachers • Interplayers • 174 S. Howard St. • interplayers.com • 455-PLAY

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