Newsday, March 10, 1989

"Conducting A Virtuoso Soliloquy"
by Drew Fetherston

CLASS 1 ACTS EVENING B. Three (of six) one-act plays in Manhattan Class Company's celebration of the form. Includes "Prelude And Liebestod" by Terrence McNally; "Dakota's Belly, Wyoming" by Erin Cressida Wilson and "Catfish Loves Anna," by Constance Ray. Nat Horne Theater, 440 W. 42nd Street.

Of all English words, few are so elegantly shaded--or so appropriate to a discussion of Terrence McNally's "Prelude And Liebestod" as "virtuoso."

It's a word of praise, often the highest praise. Yet it carries a whiff of sterility, a suggestion of proficiency without feeling, a hint of mere dexterity. "Prelude," one of six one-act plays in Manhattan Class Company's current festival of the form, is clearly the work of a virtuoso playwright, a work that demands (and gets) a virtuoso performance from its star, Larry Bryggman. He is The Conductor, a colossus of ego who strides to his podium with the grace of a jungle cat and a heart of darkness. As he faces the audience his orchestra--he is flanked by The Soprano (Panchali Null) and The Concert Master (Dominic Cuskern). Behind him, as audience in the drama, are The Conductor's Wife and an admirer, a young Man who lusts for the great man.

The score, of course, is Wagner's "Prelude and Liebestod." As it begins, quietly and full of eloquent pauses, the Conductor begins a monologue, speaking his thoughts aloud. At first they are merely conventional expressions of self-satisfaction: "I never met anyone as interesting as me," he says. He basks in the attention of the hall, of the Wife, of the young Man.

As the music grows in complexity and feeling, so too does the conductor's soliloquy. It becomes an aria, following the moods of the music, peaking and receding, filling with anger, loneliness, sexual hunger, loathing. "What is transfiguration but an orgasm coupled with a heart attack," he cries. The other characters also speak their minds, but they are only single instruments; their voices and thoughts join through the conductor in this symphony of human feeling. Bryggman's solo is a virtuosos piece, by turns elevated and vulgar, sublime and profane, summoning and purging pity and fear, combining the little death of sex and the bigger one that follows life.

It is superb, and Bryggman does it flawlessly. But the piece is also tinged with virtuosity of the mere sort, particularly in a section in which the Conductor recalls a sexual encounter of his youth--an encounter which, like youth itself, he can neither forget nor recapture. The structure of the passage, with body, mind and music all struggling to a peak, is too conscious; the efforts of player and writer too easily seen.

But the taint is no more pronounced in the play than in the word itself; "Prelude" is a powerful success by any reasonable standard. One minor flaw: The Wife and the admiring Man at one point leave their seats to stand beside and speak to the Conductor. This violates the play's central device, interior monologue.

"Prelude" is being performed with two other plays--"Catfish Loves Anna" by Constance Ray, and "Dakota's Belly, Wyoming" by Erin Cressida Wilson--as part of the festival's "Evening B." "Catfish," though hardly more than a sketch about two sisters (one nicely portrayed by playwright Ray) fishing in a Georgia stream, is sweetly funny and puzzling. "Dakota's Belly," is at best puzzling.

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