Why can't you give me the respect I'm entitled to?
Queens everywhere will recognize this demand, voiced so memorably by Faye Dunaway whilst impersonating Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest. But it's a complaint one could easily imagine Maria Callas lodging with playwright Terrence McNally, whose Master Class is appearing the world over (France, Argentina, presumably the West End) and demeaning La Divina's memory everywhere it goes.
Let me cut to the chase immediately and say that, here in Seattle in early January, Miss Dunaway proved that if this play has any value at all, it's as a star vehicle. Mr. McNally wrote it for Zoe Caldwell, who I can well believe was marvelous in it. Since then, Patti LuPone has had her admirers in it, and now Dixie Carter has taken over in New York. (Who's next? Lainie Kazan?) Faye Dunaway has taken the role to Boston, Seattle and Chicago already, and I must say she really makes it her own.
Complaints first. I'd never deny that McNally has a talent for clever theatrical turns. He's famous for his one-liners (Callas to an audience member: "You there -- you don't have a look. Get one."), but he also has generated scenes which catch theatrical fire even if one quibbles with the content. In Master Class, one of the most famous such depicts Callas showing her first student ("Sophie de Palma") how to inflect the recitative before "Ah, non credea mirarti" by having the pianist play while she (Callas) recites the Italian without actually singing pitches. Miss Caldwell was, I expect, magnificent here, but La Dunaway, despite her extended affair with the late Marcello Mastroiani (who called her the great love of his life), doesn't really command the Italian. Most of it is pronounced decently, but key syllables are frequently not stressed correctly, and in general her Italian, here and in the assorted phrases and expressions which turn up elsewhere in the script, doesn't sound real, felt or the least bit authoritative.
I should also note that, in Seattle, anyway, Miss Dunaway was surrounded by histrionic dreck, people who would have been laughed out of my high school's auditions. The ones who really have to sing (the Lady Macbeth pretender, plus a big strapping tenor) had voices, but their acting was nothing short of ludicrous. And the Sophie de Palma had the additional weakness of being a big girl with a surname to match ("Klump"); I almost shrieked aloud with laughter when Callas stared her down icily and yelled, "Have you ever known what it is to STARVE?" It's hard to get a piece going when you're the only thing doing.
But Faye Dunaway was, and she did. People tend to write her off as the overwrought star of camp classics like Eyes Of Laura Mars and Puzzle Of A Downfall Child, but they forget she started her career on the stage (Hogan's Goat off-Broadway) and has occasionally returned to that venue (including a big anniversary revival of Streetcar under Tennessee Williams' supervision, opposite Jon Voight). In some ways you miss the way the camera so favors that (still-) glorious face of hers. She's got everything else, though -- star presence, glamor (did I say she looks fabulous?), panache, even the willingness to get down and dirty in the big interior monologues. If anyone could pull off the horrific Aristotle Onassis nonsense about the "big uncircumcised Greek dick," Miss Dunaway could. In the event, she came damn close. But McNally keeps controverting her at every turn, having already set his Callas up as a big joke.
What's the deal with McNally's take on Callas, anyway? We know he admires her greatly, since he talks about her all the time and has hymned her in an earlier play (The Lisbon Traviata) and, among other places, in his preface to John Ardoin's The Callas Legacy. But the Maria he sends beforethe public night after night in Master Class is a ludicrous caricature of the self-aggrandizing diva; indeed, she seems more a loony queen got up as Callas than anything even vaguely resembling the goddess herself. It's not the obvious musical inaccuracies which bother me -- though I am surprised that McNally has his Maria talk of interpolating high Fs in Norma's Act One finale (where they would be harmonically out of place -- and of course Callas' entire recorded legacy encompasses, to my knowledge, precisely one F, touched in scalework in "D'amore al dolce impero") and fulminate that "Everyone knows Eboli's aria is 'O don fatale'" when in fact, as the diva well knew, that role contains not one aria but two. (Indeed, here lies another irony: the Eboli solo Callas coached in the actual Juilliard classes was not "O don fatal" but the Veil Song, with student Sheila Nadler.) After all, we know Callas herself made bloopers like insisting that Cavaradossi was tortured by Scarpia in the first act of Tosca. And I'd never suggest that what we owe Callas is retouched portraiture which ignores her many flaws and cruder idiosyncracies.
But to what end, this ridiculous figure who spends so much time berating students (especially the most talented one, who "dares" to sing Lady Macbeth's entrance solo before the century's greatest exponent of the part) and trying to make herself look significant that her talk of art (and of service to it) near the end of the play, closely echoing Callas' actual parting words to the Juilliard students, rings terribly hollow? Why sully her with embarrassing (if theatrically imaginative) sequences in which she assumes the voices of Aristotle Onassis and Battista Meneghini, whose repulsive tones and sentiments lead her through a ritual of pointless self-degradation before our very eyes? Is this all we can imagine Maria Callas thinking while brilliant music so closely associated with her (the Macbeth scena and the Sonnambula rondo-finale) is being played?
When he learned that Faye Dunaway had been signed for the Master Class tour and (maybe) the film, a friend observed, "Funny: I thought that after Mommie Dearest, Miss Dunaway had given up playing drag queens." He had a point. McNally hasn't created a larger-than-life goddess or a touchingly vulnerable humanization of a famous diva. He's put his own perverse fantasies about her and himself-as-her on the stage -- who needs it? I almost went back, just to watch Miss Dunaway do her thing one more time, but I just couldn't face this routine again. But you probably won't want to miss her, back onstage where she belongs, and I couldn't blame you for that.
|---- Ortrud Maxwell|