The Morini Strad

by Willy Holtzman
Directed by Casey Childs
Featuring Michael Laurence, Mary Beth Peil, Hanah Stuart
59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street
April 3, 2012 — April 28, 2012
production web site

Reviewed by Martha Wade Steketee
April 6, 2012

  • “What is the use of being a recluse when nobody even notices you’re gone?” (Erica on solitude)
  • “I just remove wood until all that’s left is a violin.” (Brian on violin making as sculpting)
(L-R) Mary Beth Peil, Michael Laurence. Image by James Leynse.

At the core of The Morini Strad‘s intermissionless theatrical musing on a real and unsolved mystery is a violin of great value that one character once played, that is delivered to another character to make a superficial repair prior to a possible sale, and is evoked in dialogue of lush tones played by a third character, perhaps our aged world-class violinist herself in her own memory. Intergenerational story telling by feisty insular characters that we feel as a piece of theatre only to a point, then it resolves into an intriguing but lumbering literary society lecture.  As a play, this provides a gloss on a real mystery, with quite a number of witty lines.  As a mood mystery piece, it may have taken a hint from the 1975 film based on mysterious disappearances entitled Picnic at Hanging Rock. As a showcase for some marvelous talents (performers and designers) this production is a qualified treasure.

Imperious and solitary Erica Morini (Mary Beth Peil) has enjoyed a world-class career as a solo violin performer. Now she lives in her regal rambling Upper East Side apartment (portions of which are evoked by set designer Neil Patel and projection designer Jan Hartley) with several staff members and the occasional student in attendance, and owns a Stradivarius that serves in part as a talisman of her life’s work. A bowing demonstration mishap results in a slight surface scratch to her priceless object, which Erica proceeds to have repaired by Brian (Michael Laurence). Erica travels to his rural home with her violin and stays with him and the instrument while the repairs go on — one half of the stage serves, through spare setting and more projections, as the second workshop playing area. Erica draws Brian into her relationship with the violin by scheming with him to arrange interviews with potential buyers to circumvent the unnamed “vultures” Erica is convinced surround her estate. Whether or not this sale actually transpires is one of the small sources of drama this musing offers. And throughout Erica (and we in the audience) are haunted and enchanted by a spectral violinist (Hanah Stewart), dressed in early 20th century girlish garb, who keeps constantly present one of the enchanting arts at the core of this story.

Each character offers life lessons to the other — family over career or following one’s bliss or stopping to enjoy the phases of one’s life. We hear of Brian’s thwarted dreams of making his own violins (family, children, the esoteric nature of the skill all conspire to keep him repairing rather than crafting), of his Western training and the obligatory imperious judgment from Erica on that score, though she herself did not attend university. And Erica breaks through her reticence to connect with Brian’s artistic aspirations, and breaks our heart with her reflections on her own life.

This spare creation is often luminous yet suffers in this production from an imbalance of acting styles. Peil provides heartbreaking nuance and depth to her aged artist while Laurence provides a pleasant demeanor yet little nuance to his cowboy monotone violin maker/repairer. Original music and sound design by Lindsay Jones haunt and illuminate, and the live playing by Hanah Stuart is indeed a revelation.

© Martha Wade Steketee (April 11, 2012)

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