‘Opus’ at Olney Theatre Center finds drama in a string quartet

Michael Hollinger’s entertaining “Opus,” now at the Olney Theatre Center, follows an acclaimed musical group as it hurtles toward triumph and smash-up. It’s “Behind the Music” with a string quartet instead of a rock band.

The personalities will sound familiar. Erratic genius? Check. The most flamboyant player in the quartet — in demand and up against a looming White House gig — is Dorian, a free spirit in flip-flops, toenails painted black. He’s a brilliant instrumentalist but emotionally unreliable, so Dorian humbles himself on viola rather than leading as first violinist.

Bullying egomaniac? Check. Elliot, who has commandeered the first-violin position, brays so incessantly at the group it’s a wonder his mates don’t jab a bow down his throat.

Peacemaking bass player — er, cellist? Check, in the laid-back figure of Carl. Add a vanilla second violinist named Alan and an arresting new talent — a woman! — replacing the suddenly missing Dorian, and you have a mix that combusts over coffee before rehearsal can even start.

Hollinger was a musician before he was a playwright, and his writing is savvy and sometimes brutally honest. The critiques are no-holds-barred as the characters debate taste and technique, and the neatly orchestrated dialogue occasionally mimics the kind of music they play as voices blend and compete, surge and overlap.

Yet the script is never remotely in danger of becoming inside baseball. The personalities are too juicy, and Hollinger stokes the dramatic fires with enough crises to keep you on edge, even if you can anticipate the ruthless climax.

Director Jim Petosa makes a fine show of all this. The stage is a floating wedge suspended by thin cables — taut, fragile strings. It’s an elegant platform for the actors, and they perform solo and en masse with flair.

Benjamin Evett is magnetically spontaneous as Dorian, the soul of the group. Dorian is funky and flaky, and Evett effortlessly suggests the character’s immense talent and psychic fragility.

Evett’s soulful turn anchors the performance: His Dorian is the emotional wild card that gives Elliot license to be a domineering taskmaster, a hissing part that Michael Kaye plays to the hilt. A good deal of depth and intrigue are added by the fact that Elliot and Dorian have been quietly having an affair.

Shelley Bolman strikes a note of lonely professionalism as Alan, Paul Morella makes a blissful art of being casual as the cool cellist Carl, and Becky Webber is superb as Grace, the admired but tentative new member of the group. Each performance is sharply etched, and you rapidly come to feel rather deeply for these figures. The evening hurtles along at less than two hours (no intermission), crackling with conflict but alert to ache; it’s a deeply satisfying show, and utterly well composed.

Pressley is a freelance writer.

Opus

by Michael Hollinger. Directed by Jim Petosa. Set, Cristina Todesco; costumes, Kathleen Geldard; lights, Daniel MacLean Wagner; sound design, GW Rodriguez. Through July 3 at the Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Rd., Olney. Call 301-924-3400 or visit olneytheatre.org.

Nelson Pressley has been writing about theater and other arts – but mostly theater – for the Post since 1999.
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