In his No Exit, Jean-Paul Sartre says, “Hell is other people.” For much of Ronald Harwood’s Quartet, hell is other divas.
Many years ago, Wilfred, Reginald, Jean, and Cecily performed “Bella Figlia dell’Amore,” the masterful quartet from Giuseppi Verdi’s opera Rigoletto. They achieved such perfection that the CD of their performance was reissued recently.
But what happens when your personal best is a distant memory? When it’s a nagging yardstick to show how far your skills have sunk? And how do you face that decline in your “declining” years?
In an interview, Harwood said, “Singers and ballet dancers have a physical limit on their lives. I think it must be dreadful to be famous and applauded and acclaimed and not be able to practice your art.”
Reginald, Wilfred, and Cecily live in a home for retired musicians in Kent, England. Reginald writes his biography and meditates on art; Cecily, whose mind is becoming “terminally wayward,” is the selfless caregiver. Though he’s at least 75 years old, Wilfred acts as if puberty just hit him full bore, yesterday. The trio has an alliance, based on a vow to avoid self-pity, and live in relative harmony.
Jean, the fourth member of the quartet, sounds the discordant note. A diva in concert halls and tabloids, she somehow finds her way to the retirement home — a charity case, erstwhile international soprano; okay, maybe it fits. She dredges up memories best forgotten and turns everyone inside out.
Harwood wrote The Dresser, that wonderful tribute to an aging thespian and his personal assistant, and won an Academy Award for his screenplay of The Pianist. Quartet’s as far a cry from those successes as the quartet’s past is from their current abilities.
It does have the makings. Parts recall Robert Anderson’s eerie one-act I’m Herbert, in which a man and a woman, both over 75, try to recall their former lives and loves. When addled memories get in the way, their conversation turns theater-of-the-absurd funny — and harrowing, on reflection, since they’re so far from who they were.
Harwood’s quartet has “senior” traits: Cecily’s memory is going; rational Reginald has sudden spurts of anger; Wilfred, “the giver of life,” goes on and on about a sex life he may, or may not, have had; and Jean’s a take-no-prisoners narcissist. The combination of these various “notes” promises a music-like composition. Each is distinctly different. The choices define character and create a pattern.
Thanks to a polished production at the Old Globe, Quartet’s a tug-of-war between the journey and the destination.
In effect, Act One’s an actor’s vehicle. Harwood gives his characters free play to roam and develop. But by Act Two it’s as if his horse began to smell the barn. Everything narrows. The characters repeat themselves. Wilfred, for example, offers relentless comic relief — often sexist and homophobic (repetition’s a “sign of old age,” true, and these people come from a generation that thought like that; but here it signals a lack of imagination).
Then Harwood slaps a summarizing tag on each, as in, “You probably didn’t realize this, but Reggie’s...” What started as a tapestry concludes with quick, tabloid revelations — and Harwood’s on to the next project.
Thanks to nuanced performances and Richard Seer’s subtly detailed direction, much of the “journey” entertains and intrigues.
Robert Foxworth gives Reginald such remarkable transparency, you can literally read his mind. Reggie appears held together, until we look inside, or when his anger, like a rogue wave, rises from within. Elizabeth Franz’s Jean and Jill Tanner’s Cecily bookend the play emotionally: Jean, brittle, defensive; Cecily, wide open and soft as a sponge. Like Foxworth, many of their “lines” are unwritten, subtextual suggestions.
The script builds a wall around Roger Forbes’s Wilfred. He must sing chipper, lusty notes long after they’ve made their point. His one-liners, delivered beautifully, are welcome at first. After a while, they begin to grate, then offend. Of the four characters, Wilfred’s the author’s most manipulated device.
All the design work has an appropriate, past-one’s-prime quality, from Charlotte Devaux’s costumes to York Kennedy’s autumnal hues. On Ralph Funicello’s useful set, the faded rugs probably peaked the same time the singers did.
As a play, Quartet ultimately disappoints. The destination reduces the story to silliness. And the journey? The cast performs as if at their high-water mark, as actors, and something to revere when they finally reach their declining years.
- Quartet, by Ronald Harwood
- Old Globe Theatre, 1363 Old Globe Way, Balboa Park
- Directed by Richard Seer; cast: Roger Forbes, Robert Foxworth, Elizabeth Franz, Jill Tanner; scenic design, Ralph Funicello; costumes, Charlotte Devaux; lighting, York Kennedy; sound, Christopher R. Walker
- Playing through August 31; Sunday, Tuesday, and Wednesday at 7:00 p.m. Thursday through Saturday at 8:00 p.m. Matinee Saturday and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. 619-234-5623. theoldglobe.org