Since its Broadway premiere in 1995, Terrence McNally’s Master Class has been a popular pick on the high school speech team circuit; after all, McNally’s biting portrayal of real-life opera singer Maria Callas lends itself well to the short, humorous two-person scenes common in those competitions. Yet, as TimeLine Theatre Company’s production of the piece illustrates, the play is full of laughs but short on substance, even when presented with an insanely talented cast.
The most glaring issue with the script becomes apparent roughly thirty minutes into the two hour play. The play’s humor stems from McNally’s representation of Callas as a diva who spouts unfiltered criticism and who is unable to separate her past performances from other interpretations. As the first eager student enters to sing for this musical idol, then, Callas’ harsh comments, frequent allusions to her representation of the piece, and complete lack of self-awareness produce some initial laughs. Yet this sequence, rather than being built upon, is merely repeated. There may be different targeted critiques of each student, but the formula remains the same--the joke stretching thinner and thinner as the play continues on.
As the book end of each act, the script attempts further dept, diving deeper into Callas’ past. In these instances, we get glimpses of the struggles and hurdles Callas overcame to make it where she is. But even these moments follow a repetitive pattern; both are told in monologue-esque flashbacks that prove more confusing than meaningful.
Despite the shortcomings of McNally’s formulaic script, there is still a lot to love about TimeLine’s production, most notably Janet Ulrich Brooks. Each time I see Ulrich Brooks perform, I’m blown away by her talent and her versatility. Though an extremely accomplished dramatic actress, Ulrich Brooks showcases her serious comedic chops in this role. She makes the most of each joke, all the while maintaining a quick pace, avoiding the lingering common of less experienced comics. More importantly, she manages, in spite of the less than fully fleshed out backstory, to bring to light the sadness, insecurity, and staunch adherence to truth beneath Callas’ egotistical facade.
As Callas’ uneasy students, cast members Eric Anthony Lopez, Molly Hernàndez, and Keirsten Hodgens prove solid counterparts, each showcasing their stunning vocal prowess. And the minimalist set design by Arnel Sancianco is perfectly crafted and adds a beautiful, high-class quality to the production.
It’s these performances and the overall quality that make TimeLine’s Master Class worthwhile. What the script is lacking is overshadowed by the talent onstage, and, just as the real Callas was known to do, Ulrich Brooks steals the show with her tremendous talent.
Somewhat Recommended ★★✩✩
Review by Emily Schmidt
Master Class continues at Stage 773 through December 9. More info here.
The Hawk Chicago is included in TheatreInChicago's Review Round-Up.