Something – quite a lot, actually – about Terrence McNally’s 1995 play about Maria Callas giving a New York master class sticks in the craw, but much of Tyne Daly’s performance sticks in the mind.
Despite wearing a dead raccoon of a hairpiece that makes her look from behind like Davy Crockett with good vocal portamento but bad physical deportment, Daly here confirms in this Manhattan Theatre Club revival via Broadway what she proved many moons ago as Mama Rose in Gypsy: she’s a real, and considerable, stage actress.
She’s marvellous, in fact, as Callas, miles better than Patti LuPone in the premiere (who played the diva merely as a bitchy drag act), mining the tragedy of her own life while acting probably her greatest role, Verdi’s Lady Macbeth, through her tutorial.
She gives sideways looks that kill, a noble nose framed in flyaway mascara and arched brows that suggest an uncanny facial resemblance. Her one message to the students, repeated ad infinitum ad nauseam in banal variations, is “feel” it, don’t just sing it.
Give us a stab of pain, not just the note. Well, yes, no-one’s going to disagree with that. And to illustrate it dramatically, the three pupils all start unaccountably stupid and are transformed in a trice. Dianne Pilkington is told to get “a look” as quickly as possible and does so, weepily, as Callas acts out Bellini’s tragic sleepwalker.
She, and we, are even more rewarded by the turnarounds in Naomi O'Connell’s tremendous performance of the letter scene in Macbeth – the mezzo having stormed off in a confused huff in her unsuitably showy but cheap-looking mauve dress (“Are you going somewhere after this?”); and by man mountain tenor Garrett Sorenson’s tumultuous lyrical eruption as Cavaradossi.
All the while, Daly is goading, emoting, internally combusting and crying, but without resorting to camp or hysterics. When required to deliver a put-down, she does so with the scything, half-serious malevolence of, well, Jackie Mason.
The major weakness in Stephen Wadsworth’s production is the way she has to belt through her offstage fall-outs with her ancient husband, and then the foul-mouthed Aristotle Onassis, while battling against her own recordings: a different sort of biographical play would have suited that over-compressed material, and this performance, much better.
These scenes, designed by Thomas Lynch, are shadowy lit interludes at La Scala, which magically invades the functional Juilliard lecture hall – where we, the audience, are seated as students; there’s a slice of red curtain, a golden pillar, a hint of the glittering circles (not the full Monty as we had in the original).
The “set-up” of the master class is tediously and self-consciously done with the incursions of the gauche stagehand (Gerard Carey) and the joshing of the very good accompanist (Jeremy Cohen).
But there are moments, too, when Daly, undercutting the pretence that the show is not about her (“No applause – we’re here to work”), grumbles threateningly under her own lines, and hints at dark cavities of yesteryear in vanished triumphs that make the evening come alive and, yes, send a thrill of delight pulsing through your veins.