A Quiet Place
nytheatre.com review by Daniel John Kelley
November 4, 2010
At a funeral, friends and relatives mourn the passing of a woman who died driving drunk in a car accident—all while they complain about how there's no parking. A husband and wife meet by chance on a street and each claims to have lunch plans so that they don't have to spend another hour together. A young man with a developmental disorder tries to explain to his new brother-in-law how he touched his sister when they were little.
Is it a new play by David Mamet? No! It's a three-act opera by Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Wadsworth, premiered in Houston in 1983, and only now getting its New York premiere, produced by the New York City Opera. Directed by Christopher Alden, A Quiet Place is an engaging if uneven evening, with both sparks of brilliance and cringeworthy moments provided by opera and production alike. In short, it's exactly what should be on the stage of a major New York opera house.
The story of A Quiet Place is a kind of sequel to Bernstein's 1954 one-act opera Trouble in Tahiti. Tahiti tells the story of a married couple, Sam and Dinah, in pre-Mad-Men-era America, who are feeling estranged from each other in what should be their prepackaged happy American suburban life. A Quiet Place includes all of Trouble in Tahiti, as a flashback in the second act of the opera, and builds around it. In Quiet Place, we are in the not-so distant future, where Dinah has died in a drunk-driving accident and the family is both brought together and devastated by it. We see the effects of her death on the square-chinned husband, Sam, their free-spirited daughter, Dede, and their developmentally challenged son, Junior.
While each part of A Quiet Place has something to offer, the second act Trouble in Tahiti section is really when the production, and the opera, soars. This is also helped by the fact that, by far, the strongest performances of the evening come from baritone Christopher Feigum as Young Sam, and soprano Patricia Risley as Dinah. The setting of Quiet Place calls for a much more realistic and contemporary style of acting than many pieces, and it is Risley and Feigum who hit this stylistic mark most effectively. In the Tahiti section of Quiet Place, we hear Bernstein do what the great operatic composers have done in times before him: elevate their source material musically so that the essential human struggle of it feels universal. In the second act duet between Young Sam and Dinah, we feel the aching loneliness and alienation of the marriage played out through music. We hear the happiness that these people were promised, and how these people who want to come together just can't.
While the opera as a whole may be uneven—and the production likewise suffers as a result of this unevenness—the evening I spent at the opera was without a doubt an exciting one. Between Bernstein and Wadsworth, Alden, and the game cast, the opera felt necessary—that it was grappling with themes of grief, alienation, and remorse that are contemporary and relevant to the lives of the people in the audience, despite the opera being written 27 years ago. More of this please, New York City Opera. More of this.