In 1989, Terrence McNally seduced theatergoers with the idea of Maria Callas as an opera fanatic's ideal in the thoughtful and delicious "Lisbon Traviata." Six years later, the playwright upped the ante by presuming to speak for Callas herself in the formidably serious comedy, "Master Class."
That McNally loves opera and knows how to transfer his passion to theater audiences is beyond dispute. Less certain, however are his intentions in "Golden Age," an ambitiously produced but ultimately toothless diversion set backstage at the 1835 premiere of Vincenzo Bellini's last opera, "I Puritani."
Taken at surface value, this is a lark, a playful if overextended imagining of rivalries and obsessions at a time when opera composers were like rock stars in capes, and new operas were events. But McNally uses just enough historical veracity to make the inaccuracies glaring. He leans on stock opera jokes -- you know, the baritone pads his crotch with fruit, the tenor is only concerned about his high F -- while straining for serious poignancy about immortality and art.
Besides, he puts his characters in a preposterous situation, where loud egos and trivial conflicts are played out by the composer and singers as if the performances -- which come to us from uncredited recordings -- were not meant to be happening right then on the stage. (The smartly deceptive set is by Santo Loquasto.)
Director Walter Bobbie keeps the absurd shifts of tone moving without effort. And Bebe Neuwirth -- with whom he made indelible music in his staging of "Chicago" -- finds just the right world-weary but wounded and wise presence as the force-of-nature with the fraying soprano, Maria Malibran.
Lee Pace has an appealing combination of boyishness and histrionic slouch as Bellini, who coughs blood here into a handkerchief -- a la "Traviata" -- though his death, at 33, was generally agreed to be from an intestinal inflammation. In this version, there is no doubt that Bellini's young patron (Will Rogers) is also his lover. The quartet of famous bel canto singers, named after the real ones, is impersonated with comic-buffo style by Dierdre Friel, Lorenzo Pisoni, Eddie Kaye Thomas and Ethan Phillips.
F. Murray Abraham, a late replacement for Richard Easton as Bellini's aging rival Rossini, isn't seen until late in the last scene. Next week, George Morfogen replaces Abraham. Since Rossini comes to deliver a message of forgiveness, I guess the third cast change in a few weeks is forgivable, too.
WHAT "Golden Age"
WHERE Manhattan Theatre Club, 131 W. 55th St., Manhattan
INFO $85; 212-581-1212; manhattantheatreclub.org
BOTTOM LINE Ambitious but toothless