Slender, striking and formidable, with dark hair swept dramatically back, Faye Dunaway enters. There’s no question--she has “a look.” That’s what Maria Callas insists every singer must get in Terrence McNally’s “Master Class,” his love letter to the great diva of opera and of real-life rejection. Playing Callas, Dunaway narrows her long eyes and tells her mortified pupils: “You don’t have a look. Get one.” Dunaway herself not only has a look, she also has the film rights.
Playing Callas in the national tour of “Master Class,” now at the UCLA/James A. Doolittle Theatre, Dunaway uses the role more than simply as a rehearsal for the film she may eventually star in. Her performance does not go as deep as that of Zoe Caldwell, who originated the part of Callas and who played it at the Mark Taper Forum in 1995, but she is riveting and entertaining. Here Dunaway has her revenge on Andrew Lloyd Webber, who fired her from the role of Norma Desmond in “Sunset Boulevard” before she even opened. He said she couldn’t sing. Now she’s playing the world’s greatest singer, and she doesn’t have to issue a note. She simply has to exude glamour, and pain, and she does.
Some divas are so big they can only play divas. Pauline Kael once predicted that the role of Joan Crawford in “Mommie Dearest” could haunt Dunaway forever, and she wasn’t far off. How many roles can match that one for dramatic bounty? What role could erase the memory of Joan’s padded shoulders and demented, crossing eyes as she cried out her pain in the immortal words, “No wire hangers!”
Callas offers Dunaway something Crawford did not: the chance to go to the source of her character’s operatic pain. The play crosscuts between the “present"--a class Callas is teaching at Juilliard in the early ‘70s--and her private memories, the indignities she suffered that helped make her the terrifying perfectionist before us. Dunaway plunges heroically into these desperate interior monologues and makes you forget that she looks more Beverly Hills than Greek-Italian American.
Dunaway relives Callas’ difficult early struggles and her humiliations at the hand of her lover Aristotle Onassis. In one monologue she plays both the gruff Ari and the submissive younger Callas--she’s more convincing as Ari. But later, when Callas grovels to Ari, begging him to allow her to keep the child she is carrying, Dunaway exposes the extremes to which a proud woman will go if someone insists she is to be degraded. It’s overstated, but it works.
Her callow students can’t possibly hold a candle to the pain of La Divina; the distance between their emotional lives is the primary source of the play’s comedy. In the classroom, Dunaway’s Callas is more vividly self-involved, less of a teacher than was Caldwell’s. She is breathtakingly nasty. She warns her students not to criticize her old rivals and then rips them to shreds herself. If she says, “Posture!” to a singer, the piano player straightens right up. Woe to any student who tries to make a joke; Callas will not be a straight-man and she will not permit anyone to steal focus. Her withering stare is something to be avoided at all cost. Her meanness is in the name of art, as she keeps reminding everyone, but that doesn’t stop her charges from shedding tears.
Michael McGarty’s set, a slightly grimy, cream-colored room with intricate molding, is specific and evocative. When Callas remembers an early singing triumph, the stage is covered over by a projection of the boxes at La Scala, which blankets the auditorium as well, a wonderful effect. Under the original director, Leonard Foglia, the supporting cast does its job as a foil to the star. But to a person they seem a shade more green than they need to be. Suzan Hanson, who plays the one student who bites back at La Divina, offers a startlingly fine voice in her aria from Verdi’s “MacBeth.”
Dunaway’s “Master Class” is less serious and more fun than the previous Los Angeles production. You could dare to call it “Maria Dearest.” But if you do, you’d better have a look.
* “Master Class,” Doolittle Theatre, 1615 N. Vine St., Tuesdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 7 p.m.; Saturdays-Sundays, 2 p.m. Also July 3, 2 p.m. Dark July 4. Ends July 13. $45-$55. (800) 233-3123. Running time: 2 hours, 40 minutes.
Gary Green: Manny
Faye Dunaway: Maria Callas
Melinda Klump: Sophie
Scott Davidson: Stagehand
Suzan Hanson: Sharon
Kevin Paul Anderson: Tony
A production of Robert Whitehead, Lewis Allen, Spring Serkin, Columbia Artists Theatricals and Manny Kladitis. By Terrence McNally. Directed by Leonard Foglia. Sets Michael McGarty. Costumes Jane Greenwood. Lighting Brian MacDevitt. Sound Jon Gottlieb. Production stage manager Patrick Ballard.