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The Morini Strad

(Review by Tulis McCall)

"Based on a true story" is always a phrase that puts me off my feed. Usually the author is so dedicated to the details of the tale that s/he forgets to create a plot around which a play can be built. The writer forgets to include a character that wants something, whose desire leads to a conflict that causes a kafuffle to be addressed. While Willie Holtzman seems to have taken a few liberties in creating this piece for theatre, providing a plot was not one of them.

Erica Morini, (Mary Beth Peil) a former child prodigy on the violin and now a lonely woman living on her income as a violin teacher, has a Stradivarius - The Davidoff Strad, so named for its last owner - that needs repair. It has been scratched, and this is a sacrilege. She calls upon the services of Brian Skarstad (Michael Laurence) who is himself a bit of a recluse. He is an artisan who values what a violin is: the marriage of wood that sings. She values a violing for what can be coaxed out of it by the right person: music. They are like parents fighting over an only child.

And indeed this violin is like a child. Just look at the production photo of the violin being held the way a woman would hold her pregnant stomach. This violin is beautiful, innocent, and its mission is only to do good. Whether it is allowed to give its soul to the world depends on its caretakers. This violin could not ask for better. Although they are often at odds with one another - he values his children; she thinks they are a waste of time. He admires musicians she thinks of as hacks. She would touch the violin before he signals that the varnish is dry. He thinks the Strad is an object of veneration. She wants to sell it.

Life is pressing down on both of these people. Brian may have to take a job with a restorer for financial security, just as on a grander scale, Erica may have to sell the violin. When she asks Brian to be the agent, the possibility of the violin coming to both their rescues is at once exhilarating and frightening. It proves to be the near undoing of their relationship.

While I was driven crazy by the sort of travelogue tone of this piece, my companion for the evening was entranced. A former violinist herself, this story reminded her of her first violin, found in the Penny-Saver by her mother back in the 1960's. When she and her father found a man in Hartford to repair the piece - she remembers that his street address was the first "1/2" she had ever encountered - his shop was a small building at the end of an alley. When he saw the instrument he first addressed the bow's needs. Then he took the violin in his arms and held it like a baby. He smiled and was silent for a long time. Then he said, "I made this violin" - a life changing moment that still glows after decades.

This play has a narrow bandwidth, and my friend fit into it just fine. And I daresay that most of the attendees will leave with a new appreciation for a violin. My favorite moment in the play is when Brian taps two pieces of wood together and creates a note of music. The music is in the tree first. The fact that it makes it to Carnegie Hall is a colossal miracle.

Think of what THAT story could have been, if someone had lined its interior with a plot of equal magnitude. But nobody did, and as a result these actors have very little to do other than enjoy each other's company. Such a situation is great in daily life, but in the theatre it is as dull as a pile of wood shavings.

"As 'The Morini Strad' unfolds, ..., an ungainly array of seize-the-day speeches begins to clutter the stage. "
Eric Grode for New York Times

"A delicately drawn, if predictable story."
Joe Dziemianowicz for New York Daily News

"A lovely theatrical chamber piece that's both expertly written and performed."
Frank Scheck for New York Post

"The only grace notes among the clinkers of this particular "Strad" come courtesy of these two excellent actors."
Mark Peikert for Back Stage

"Like a diamond chip, a speck of a play like "The Morini Strad" can sparkle if it's beautifully mounted. Primary Stages shows how it's done..."
Marilyn Stasio for Variety

External links to full reviews from popular press...

New York Times - New York Daily News - New York Post - Back Stage - Variety

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