Maria The Callous Rides Again In 'Master Class'

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WATERTOWN, Mass. — Time and again, in “Master Class,” Maria Callas tells her students – and the audience – that they have to rise to greatness, that they should never settle for mere accomplishment.

It’s something that the New Repertory Theatre should have thought of before taking on Terrence McNally’s Tony-winning play, not because it’s great piece of writing, but because it isn’t. It’s a play that needs a great diva to play a great diva in order to convince you that McNally has something significant to say about Callas, opera or art.

As I said when the play came to Boston in 1996, it’s as much “Maude” as “Medea.” Faye Dunaway was better than either Zoe Caldwell or Patti LuPone at capturing the Greek tragedy in McNally’s script, but all could make the hairs on your neck stand on end. Amelia Broome, who never convinces you she’s inhabiting Callas, is by far the weakest. The dramatic high points of the play (at the Arsenal Center for the Arts through April 21) are dramatic arias in which Callas remembers the tragedies and triumphs of her personal and professional life. Here they are so rushed that you get the impression that the director doesn’t want to make it any longer than the 2 ½ hours it clocked in at on opening night. Hairs on neck remain firmly in place.

Length is no object when there’s something to show for it, but without the hair-raising intensity of those arias “Master Class” is nothing more than a ‘90s sitcom –- today’s TV comedy writing (“Louie,” “Curb Your Enthusiasm”) is light years better than McNally’s, which the weakness of this production makes evident.

Broome is more than adequate at getting the chuckles that the script calls for as Callas lacerates the three students onstage, but big deal. McNally loves opera in general and Callas in particular, but as I said with the original productions, you’d hate to see how he handles people he doesn’t like. She comes across as a deranged, egomaniacal diva here and if you listen to the EMI recordings of the master classes or watch the on YouTube she’s nothing of the sort –- she was as helpful and calm as she was intelligent and passionate.

So even when you give McNally all the Wagnerian poetic license in the universe, Callas –- without a dramatic coutnterweight — is simply a mean-spirited harridan who let lover Aristotle Onassis walk all over her. And it isn’t just Broome’s fault. Director Antonio Ocampo-Guzman does her no favors. There’s scant evidence that he has added much of anything to this bland production. (There is one terrific aria of the operatic kind, by the way — opera singer Darren T. Anderson's "Recondita Armonia" from "Tosca.")

Directors at Boston’s midsize theaters –- and small theaters for that matter –- have made strong cases that chamber productions of big-budget shows can bring out elements that get lost on the Broadway stage. It will be interesting to see what SpeakEasy Stage does with “In the Heights” next month. All that New Rep’s “Master Class” proves is that the play was overrated to begin with.

Here's what McNally had to say about it a couple of years ago. I can't say that I'm sorry I missed Tyne Daly:

But I am sorry to have missed the real thing:

This program aired on April 3, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.

Ed Siegel Twitter Critic-At-Large
Now retired and contributing as a critic-at-large, Ed Siegel was the editor of The ARTery.