Tyne Daly in ‘Master Class’ on Broadway: A class above

Tyne Daly in ‘Master Class’ on Broadway: A class above

In Tyne Daly’s striking turn as Maria Callas, it’s not so much Callas’s imperiousness that comes across, as the ferocity of her self-belief. Or maybe what you feel is simply her intense need to believe in herself, a yearning stoked by the tangle of her great gifts and greater insecurities.

Whatever psychological complex might be ascribed to her interpretation of the mystique-enshrouded diva of Terrence McNally’s “Master Class,” Daly’s performance can safely be diagnosed as top of the line. The actress effectively shrinks the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, where the revival opened Thursday night, to the dimensions of a confessional, a place where we drink in the reveries and memories of a star whose voice gave out long before her ache for the follow spot.

The stitching of McNally’s Tony-winning play from 1995 — staged by the Kennedy Center last spring and remounted by the Manhattan Theatre Club with two changes of supporting cast — is too rough for “Master Class” to qualify as classic. The integration in each act of a spoken aria, in which Callas tallies her triumphs at La Scala and despairs (the affair with Aristotle Onassis), is a clumsy biographical device that sucks a goodly amount of air out of the evening.

Even so, “Master Class” remains a diverting and at times juicily amusing vehicle for an actress capable of bottling a prima donna’s blunt-force charisma. And Daly proves again to be just that. If anything, the performance has grown since Washington .

The refinements are apparent in the lively interplay among Callas and the trio of voice students — or “victims,” in the diva’s parlance — who are paraded one by one onto the stage, to sing and be subjected to the stinging critiques of the legendary “La Divina.”

Daly’s Washington Callas exuded more warmth than her Broadway Callas — perhaps initially in the minds of Daly and her excellent director, Stephen Wadsworth, there was a little more concern about an audience liking her. Truth be told, a martinet can be irresistible, as long as you are out of the line of fire. Daly seems to have internalized Callas’s pain on a deeper scale; her character is less conscious, as a result, of the pain she inflicts on others.

Thus the cutting remarks McNally places in Callas’s mouth are now funnier and, at times, more shocking. (The show is loosely based on a series of master classes presided over at Juilliard by Callas, who died in 1977 at the age of 53.) When, for instance, a prim soprano (Sierra Boggess, once of Broadway’s “Little Mermaid”) enters in a stunning gown, Callas’s cruel put-down gives us to understand how drained of compassion the bruised opera star might have been by this late stage of her career. It’s diva as “Mommie Dearest”: Her rage is such that she can’t feel for anyone but herself.

Her sessions of scolding and occasionally encouraging the singers who’ve come to absorb her wisdom remain the evening’s high points. Garrett Sorenson makes an especially good match for Daly as a tenor who has the comfort level with himself to withstand Callas’s onslaught. Boggess gives a poised account of a singer who slowly gathers herself and rises to the occasion, and Jeremy Cohen brings a becoming sweetness to the role of Manny, the deferential accompanist.

“Master Class,” however, is about 99 and 44 / 100 percent Callas, a proportion that works just fine with Daly cracking the whip.

Master Class

By Terrence McNally. Directed by Stephen Wadsworth. Set, Thomas Lynch; costumes, Martin Pakledinaz; lighting, David Lander; sound, Jon Gottlieb; wig, Paul Huntley. With Alexandra Silber, Clinton Brandhagen. About 2 hours 15 minutes. At Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 W. 47th St., New York. Visit www.telecharge.com
or call 212-239-6200.

Peter Marks joined the Washington Post as its chief theater critic in 2002. Prior to that he worked for nine years at the New York Times, on the culture, metropolitan and national desks, and spent about four years as its off-Broadway drama critic.
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