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Hair apparent: Lorraine Serabian as Maria Callas.

Do As I Say
By James Yeara

Master Class
By Terrence McNally, directed by Rob Urbinati

New York State Theatre Institute, through April 6

Terrence McNally’s 1996 Tony Award-winning play Master Class will please those who like their theater with strong conflicts, potent themes, and clean lines: Words dominate. Ideas stand out. Concepts step up. The protagonist’s stories grab attention like a rabid pit bull. “Fascinating” and “frightening” just begin to nip at the surface of McNally’s Maria Callas. “La Divina,” Callas was the diva’s diva, a crippled psyche who enunciated the power of theater even as she showed its costs.

The original production starred the awesome Zoë Caldwell, and Master Class is a magnet for actresses of sufficient ego to attempt to fill McNally’s Maria Callas with all the diva-driven excess an opera star demands. With direct addresses to the audience, fierce internal monologues directed at Callas’ brutal lover Aristotle Onassis, and even fiercer dialogues with her essentially clueless students, Master Class traces an afternoon in the teaching of the legendary Maria Callas, a fictional account of actual classes Callas taught at the Juilliard School. Master Class mesmerizes with its words and ideas of what theater does—even if the center of this particular production does not hold.

This Master Class—which began months ago at the Helen Hayes Theater in Nyack—has a smart look that some very tired performances undermined at Saturday’s opening at the New York State Theatre Institute. The play centers on Callas’ (Lorraine Serabian) interactions with her pianist-accompanist Manny (Ben Morss, who plays the piano well), first-soprano student Sophie DePalma (Michelle Dawson), nervous second-soprano student Sharon Graham (the fiery Catherine LaValle), and tenor Tony Cantolino (Alberto Sanchez). That the raven-haired (courtesy of a wig by Paul Huntley that stands out more than Serabian’s performance) Callas calls her students “victims” conveys all that is needed to know about the master teacher’s approach to her classes. While her “This isn’t about me. Poof. I’m invisible” gets a laugh every time, Callas’ classes were all about her, because she was Art.

Callas batters, belittles and beleaguers her students in the quest to foster some notion of what theater does. When the first soprano is so ill-prepared as not to have a pencil, Callas launches into an anecdote of her life in Greece that is at the foundation of her artistry: “At the conservatory, Madame de Hidalgo never once had to ask me if I had a pencil. And this was during the war, when a pencil wasn’t something you just picked up at the five-and-ten. Oh no, no, no, no. A pencil meant something. It was a choice over something else. You either had a pencil or an orange. I always had a pencil. I never had an orange. And I love oranges. I knew one day I would have all the oranges I could want, but that didn’t make the wanting them any less.”

Time and again Callas tries to connect this or a similar context to the words to create meaning, but her students just want to sing. “Find the truth of her situation,” she tells the first student. “You’re singing in Sanskrit. Words mean something.” Callas pushes her: “Think about what the words mean, Sophie” and “Make us feel what you feel. Show us that truth.”

Unfortunately, McNally has set a truthful trap for the unwary, and as Serabian spoke these words, I thought it was too bad that she didn’t take them to heart. For this Master Class, it is useful to point out how sound the play’s words and the theme are, even if the means are not there to embody them. While the set creates the look of a classical studio complete with black baby-grand piano, and while Robert Anton’s black jacket on black blouse on black pants on black platform heels with either a long blood-red scarf or a dazzling gold pendant are nice accessories to Paul Huntley’s luxurious black wig, Callas should be more than the sum of a look.

Master Class is such a master work that it will engross and dominate even if this is one time when the lead performer’s name definitely should be under the title of the play. Serabian here chooses oranges, and has no pencil.

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