In Pittsburgh we often have world premiere plays, very few of which ever go on to fame and fortune on Broadway. The new play at City Theatre looks like one with a potential to impress New York audiences. It’s The Morini Strad written by prolific playwright Willy Holtzman. He has come up with a fascinating and revealing story about the waning days in the life of a real, famed musician. This may seem, on the surface, to be an esoteric exploration, given that it concentrates on increasingly-forgotten concert violinist Erica Morini and on the special qualities of her Stradivarius violin. But beneath that surface, Holtzman’s eloquent writing explores and reveals what it means to create art and what it means to be a celebrity. Actors Carla Belver and Pittsburgh’s David Whalen, as well as director Daniella Topol bring it to vivid life.
Holtzman came very close to the story while it was happening, steeped in it by long-time friend, violin-maker Brian Skarstad, whose actual connections with Morini became the basis for the play. Although Skarstad and Morini are the only characters, this becomes more than a documentary revelation, because it involves compelling, reflective conversation between two intelligent, creative people. Holtzman’ s portrait of Morini tellingly delves into the emotional vicissitudes of being a child prodigy and, more deeply, what goes inside the persona of a performing artist.
Essentially the play shows how and why Morini and Skarstad came together and what happened between them, her violin in the center, the violin known as the Davidoff Strad, now sometimes also called the Morini Strad. Morini lived to be 91 and, by the time she and Skarstad met, she was in the last years of her life, no longer performing, a recluse, considering selling the instrument, wanting his assistance. Both, in their own ways, exist in intense isolation, she living alone, he plying his craft in a private workshop, justifying the confined focus of the time and place of what occurs on stage.
Playwright Holtzman perceptively makes meaningful the inevitable abandoning of the fame and glory of a performing career, giving up its anchor, the instrument, and facing the equivalent facts of aging and death. This version of Morini bristles with pride and vulnerability. Actress Belver makes it all true and memorable. David Whalen as Brian invests his role with equal sincerity, as well as with depth and warmth. Director Topol always elicits the right notes from both artists, bringing out the soul of what is written adding a perceptive way to change scenes, with a stagehand dressed as a nurse converting Morini’s apartment to a hospital room, helping Belver change clothes. Speaking of that stage, Tony Ferrieri has created another one of his remarkably appropriate sets, adding to the sense of real life in real time.
This exceptional, essentially true backstage drama resonates beyond its stage confines, reaching out to all of us who are passionate about sharing the love of art.
The Morini Strad plays through December 12th at City Theatre, 1300 Bingham Street, South Side 412/ 431 CITY (2489). www.citytheatrecompany.org/