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The Morini Strad

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Mary Beth Peil, Hanah Stuart, and Michael Laurence
Photo by James Leynse

A single figure, separated from its compatriots by barriers of time and necessity, and forced to exist without being able to fully embrace its purpose, is the primary focus of Willy Holtzman's The Morini Strad. But is the center of attention in this new play at Primary Stages the elderly musician who's aged beyond her art, the repairman who longs to create new instruments of his own, or the precious violin that alternately unites and comes between them? It's a credit to Holtzman's serene writing, Casey Child's beautiful production, and heartfelt but wrenching performances from Michael Laurence and Mary Beth Peil that you can never know for sure.

Luckily, you don't need to. The individual pieces are crafted adroitly enough that both Brian Skarstad (Laurence), who makes his living fixing stringed instruments but craves being able to build them from scratch, and Erica Morini (Peil), a legend who's outlived her usefulness and all the contemporaries she cares about, become individual movements of a symphony: satisfying in their own right, yet even more captivating when assessed together. We see, and thanks to the presence of a third performer, the gifted violinist Hanah Stuart (playing Erica's pseudo-fantasy younger self), hear how these two complement each other and what they have to contribute to the universe and the culture around them.

They meet initially because Erica (who is well into at least her 70s) needs someone brilliant but discreet to assist her with a potentially debilitating problem. Specifically, repair the body of her cherished violin, which was incurred during a particularly furious lesson with a particularly inept student. Alas, no one may know about this, because it's likely to torpedo the resale value Erica is counting on to fund the remainder of her years. And that value is considerable, given the violin's provenance: It's the Davidoff Stradivarius, an especially storied member of one of the most prized (and best-sounding) instrument families in music history, and one worth multiple millions to start with.

Brian can mask the scratch, but he can't do much about the deeper problems afflicting Erica: the loss of the other artists who shaped her and defined the circles in which she'd always moved, but that no longer exist. She gave up everything for her career (she married, but had no children), so what's left now that it's gone? Erica neither comprehends nor appreciates Brian's practicality, and why he'd forgo what he dreams of just to make enough money to feed his wife and children and pay for the guitar lessons they take for granted. But she does, however, need him to do this one thing, and it's not long before that translates into a need for him to fill the other gaping holes in her life.

The bond that forms between is both sweet and salty, possessing moments that either elate or disappoint one or the other. Yet for most of the play, it rings hauntingly true: Holtzman has constructed Erica with an air of well-meaning indifference and Brian with a wary indifference, qualities that play off of each other well as the two evolve and unearth more about themselves and each other. When they collaborate on a different kind of business venture for their mutual benefit, you're drawn into their competing visions of the logic, and never question the tangles that could (and do) arise. The world is drawn with such matter-of-fact concreteness, you accept nearly everything placed before you.

Peil and Laurence play crucial roles in that. Though each initially displays a chilly attitude, they slowly reveal that these are merely how their passion appears to outside observers; in fact, their thoughts and feelings run far deeper than they let on. Both performers are excellent at dropping their characters' defenses so gradually that you feel as though you're discovering and becoming acquainted with them over the course of decades. Laurence has a slightly rougher road, because the depths of (and reasoning behind) Brian's desires take longer to surface, but the two actors paint compelling visions of Brian and Erica's contrasting relationships to music.

Childs's quietly understated direction, M.L. Geiger's wistful lighting, and Neil Patel's memoryscape set, which seems to dissolve at will between Erica's apartment and Brian's workshop, successfully underscore Holtzman's narrative and bolster Laurence's and Peil's portrayals. Unfortunately, much of this becomes useless later in the evening, when Holtzman transforms his affecting chronicle of friendship of into a whodunit-style mystery that contracts the emotions at play rather than letting them expand. At that point, for the first time, Brian and Erica feel false, as if they're content to watch events unfold rather than take charge of their destinies.

The point of The Morini Strad is that neither of these people do that, and it takes them time to identify the other as the kindred spirit who can supply the understanding they need to be artistically whole for the first time. This may be the only dramatic misstep of note, but it's a major one, and keeps the play from having the fully arresting impact it could if Brian and Erica were allowed to naturally release their full potential. But until that point, Holtzman and those involved with this production unlock a raw, honest, and moving look at what makes creative types the special, pitiable, and profound creatures they so frequently are.

The Morini Strad
Through April 28
59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street, between Park and Madison
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule:

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