ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Ronald Harwood is best-known today for his 1980 play “The Dresser,” made into an award-winning movie in 1983 starring Albert Finney as an aging Shakespearean actor and Tom Courtney as his dresser. Elderly stage performers is also the topic of his 1999 play, “Quartet,” which tells the tale of four fading opera singers living in a home for retired musicians.
“Quartet” was made into a movie in 2012 directed by Dustin Hoffman and starring such British giants of the stage as Dame Maggie Smith, Sir Tom Courtney, Sir Michael Gambon, and Sir William Connolly, to list only those knighted by the crown. Film has opportunities for expansion and scenic variety not afforded to the stage, but “Quartet” the movie is quite different from the play, particularly in its ending, which touched me in a way the stage version did not. “Quartet” is now playing at the Adobe Theater, directed by Marty Epstein and featuring some of Albuquerque’s most seasoned actors.
The plot of “Quartet,” such as it is, centers around a celebration in recognition of the anniversary of the birth of Giuseppe Verdi, composer of some of the world’s greatest operas, including “Rigoletto.” Dramatic tension commences when world famous diva Jean Horton comes to live in the retirement home, causing ex-husband Reginald great pain. For most of the play Wilfred (a sex-obsessed Scottish baritone), Cecily (a flighty soprano struggling with incipient dementia) and Reginald (after he reconciles with his ex-wife), attempt to convince diva Jean, who has sworn never to sing again, to take part in the quartet from “Rigoletto” at Verdi’s birthday celebration.
It is the relationship of Reginald and Jean that made the film so moving, especially with the altered ending. Harwood rewrote the parts for the film, making the characters more interesting and likeable (especially as played by Courtney and Smith). As it is, in the play (or in the production) they come across as too affected. I was unable to respond emotionally to the two characters and simply did not like them much. I’m sure Alaina Warren Zachary, a very talented actress, is doing her best to bring Jean to life, but I never got a strong sense of the person behind the affected personality. Likewise with Reginald; I wanted Mario Cabrera to open himself up more to his vulnerable character’s wounded self. The pronounced British dialect and stiff manner made the character impermeable.
Philip Shortell is likable as the randy Scotsman, although his otherwise fine Scots dialect would periodically slip into Irish. Best of all is Georgia Athearn, who successfully conveys Cecily’s inner life without affectation.
Having loved the movie so much I really wanted to like this show, but I’m afraid it failed to touch my heart. Wilf and Cecily are the more likable characters, but Reginald and Jean, having once loved each other, should be the emotional center. Harwood himself seems to have realized this and corrected the problem when adapting his script for film. Still, “Quartet” is a moderately entertaining, occasionally funny, and sometimes insightful play about courage and perseverance in the face of aging and deterioration.
“Quartet” is playing through May 12 at Adobe Theater, 9813 Fourth NW, Albuquerque. Go to adobetheater.org or call 898-9222 for reservations.