Growing old isn’t for sissies. In South-African-born, British playwright Ronald Harwood’s smart 1999 comedy Quartet, he gently wrestles with the indignities of aging in a British senior-citizens’ residence for retired musicians and singers. The British Players’ production, which runs through March 24 at Kensington Town Hall in Kensington, MD, provides a witty take on the 1999 play.
Some may be familiar with the 2012 movie version with which Dustin Hoffman made his directorial debut. The film featured Dame Maggie Smith as new resident diva Jean Horton, along with Billy Connolly, Tom Courtenay, and Pauline Collins as her former opera colleagues. In the film, their witty repartee provided a rapier-sharp foil for the embarrassments of thickening waistlines, sagging bodies, fading memories and – worst of all for these one-time opera stars – cracking voices. In the movie, as these aging performers faced their mortality, Harwood’s undercurrent of loss allowed for a sense pathos.
For The British Players, director Matthew Ratz uses a gentle hand in setting the dialogue-driven story in slow motion on Designer/Stage Manager Mike Lewis’s workable set, with its plain but serviceable first-act outdoor terrace and second act living room. The four actors have a good time pacing through Harwood’s witty repartee and randy moments, but quicker comebacks would occasionally sharpen the zings and arrows these retired opera singers shoot at one another. And the audience of peers – mostly gray-haired – responds with laughs.
The plot revolves around a group of four residents – they semi-jokingly call themselves “inmates” as they have nowhere else to go – planning to sing the famed quartet from “Rigoletto” at the home’s fall gala in honor of Guiseppe Verdi’s birthday. They spar, tease, and, in one case, even pinch a behind.
The comrades in arms are: Cecily, or Cissy, a plump soprano played as a flighty and forgetful by Angela Cannon; Reggie, the dapper artiste/philosopher, portrayed with aplomb by Peter Harrold; John Allnutt’s earthy, sex-starved Wilfred, who makes randy-eyed glances as he spouts somewhat blue innuendoes like a teenage boy. Finally, there’s Jill Vanderweit, as grand diva Jean, who enters gracefully with her cane, wrapped in a velvet kimono and silk scarf. She sets the play in motion and her much-gossiped-about brief marriage to one of the other residents provides a touch of frisson.
Harwood made his career writing dramatic pieces for stage and screen steeped in theatrical and musical settings – from The Dresser to The Pianist to After the Lions (about Sarah Bernhardt). The British Players were founded in 1964 as the British Embassy Players to bring music hall and other British theatrical traditions to the stage in Washington, DC. After gaining independence from the British Embassy in 2005, the organization has continued to produce and present plays with a decidedly British accent to audiences in the beautiful Kensington Town Hall.
The British Players’ production of Quartet continues that tradition, focusing on droll and clever dialogue, while glossing over the more poignant undertones found in Harwood’s script dealing with aging and loss of vitality, of artistry, and of voice – the lifeblood of an opera singer.
Running Time: Two hours and 15 minutes with one 15-minute intermission.
Quartet plays through March 24, 2018, by The British Players performing at Kensington Town Hall – 3710 Mitchell Street, Kensington, MD. For tickets, call the box office at (240) 447-9863, or purchase online.