"A discourse among four reasonable people." That's how Goethe once described a string quartet, and when one member of the fictional Lazara Quartet admiringly cites this quotation early in John Hollinger's new drama, "Opus," a twinge of unease is inevitable. As sublime as that formula can be for Mozart and Bartók, Haydn and Shostakovich, a play about four reasonable people engaging in discourse sounds, well, kind of boring.
As it happens, the author — himself a trained violist — sees to it that his onstage quartet, which faces a pressure-cooker deadline and has just replaced an unstable member, behaves plenty unreasonably. This behavior is believable and even compelling as long as Mr. Hollinger stays within the contentious minutiae of musicmaking, but he and director Terrence J. Nolen gradually overreach for broader emotional upheavals. As artistic differences give way to turf battles and melodramatic standoffs, the results range from diverting to provocative to, well, still kind of boring.
In addition to Elliot (David Beach), the persnickety de facto leader who offers that Goethe quote, there is also Carl (Douglas Rees), the wisecracking family man; Alan (Richard Topol), the laid-back divorcé; and Dorian (Michael Laurence), the madman genius and Elliot's longtime lover. Actually, there was Dorian: Owing to one Dionysian flameout too many, his viola seat has been ceded to an awestruck, eager-to-please young woman named Grace (Mahira Kakkar).
After an agreeably uncomfortable early scene in which Grace auditions for and is asked to join the quartet, provided she decide immediately, "Opus" flashes through a fateful week leading up to a televised performance at the Bush White House. It's not exactly a career-making opportunity — the Lazara already has a Grammy and years of prestigious world tours under its belt — but it is a fairly big gig for a fairly big ensemble under some fairly big pressures, and the members devise a fittingly momentous program.
Playing the role of sacred menace — the towering piece that exalts and/or demolishes anyone foolish enough to approach it, ŕ la Rachmaninoff's Third Piano Concerto in "Shine" or Mozart's Requiem Mass in "Amadeus" — is Beethoven's Opus 131 in C-sharp minor, an uncharacteristically long and grueling string quartet that once prompted Schubert to exclaim, "After this, what is left for us to write?" It is Mr. Hollinger's slightly fanciful conceit that the newly reconfigured Lazara attempts it as a sort of contrapuntal trial by fire. (He also floats the equally questionable notion that the White House first requested Pachelbel's Canon, that staple of wedding processionals and You-Tube electric-guitar virtuosi.)
Opus 131, we also learn, was instrumental in the dissolution of the Lazara in its original incarnation. And while Mr. Hollinger occasionally flashes back to those stormy days, most of "Opus" takes place during the week of increasingly fractious rehearsals. The added tension of having a female member, coupled with a handful of new crises, brings the quartet's lingering resentments to a crisis point that will ultimately ensnare the gifted but fragile Dorian as well.
With its offhand references to "Kreisler," "Curtis," and "K.590" — insider shorthand for an Austrian violinist/composer, a Philadelphia conservatory, and a Mozart quartet, respectively — "Opus" immerses the viewer into an unapologetically rarefied world of artistic snobbery. (Poor Pachelbel comes in for some rough treatment.) Messrs. Hollinger and Nolen contrast this highfalutin sensibility with the foursome's muttered quibbles over tempos, reliably stale jokes, terse corrections, and, courtesy of costume designer Anne Kennedy, shlubby rehearsal outfits.
Thanks largely to a lived-in comfort level among the five capable actors — Mr. Rees, a veteran of regional productions, is particularly strong — the rehearsal scenes plausibly convey the tedium and tough work that goes into creating what is described as the sound of "four instruments being played with one bow." (The creation of this sound, meanwhile, is never explicitly depicted. Mr. Nolen has the actors mime the synchronized bowings and intense eye contact of a real-life string quartet, but their bows and fingers hover a few inches over the strings as the actual music is piped in through a sound system. The effect is less distracting than it sounds.)
Messrs. Hollinger and Nolen chart the shifting alliances and mounting discontent realistically, as when Elliot — obliviously at first, then perhaps not so obliviously — continues to address the mixed-gender group as "Gentlemen." These subtle skirmishes are far more convincing than the handful of off-puttingly melodramatic sequences, including a flashback to Dorian's instability and a credulity-straining finale in which all five characters converge for a bitter and destructive power struggle — in the White House, no less.
Equally unwelcome is Mr. Hollinger's pandering breakdown of personalities according to sexual preference. "Opus" depicts a world where the straight people watch baseball games and hold up mightily under great strains, while the gay people go off their meds, weep, and storm out of rehearsals. It is in moments like these when the one bow playing the four instruments on display creates a jarringly inexpert sound.
Until September 1 (59 E. 59th St., between Park and Madison avenues, 212-279-4200).