The unofficial motto at the retirement home for musicians where onetime opera singers Reggie (Robert Foxworth), Jean (Elizabeth Franz), Wilfred (Roger Forbes) and Cecily (Jill Tanner) reside is “NSP,” which stands for “No Self-Pity.” Yet in Ronald Harwood’s Quartet, directed by Richard Seer at the Old Globe’s theater-in-the-round, that’s what these four spend a lot of time doing. Some more than others. Jean, who was the biggest opera star of the four, is feeling sorry for herself when she isn’t feeling hostile, and Reggie conceals his self-indulgence in brooding and ominous silences. Cecily is the merriest but the least lucid, while Wilfred is sex-obsessed, trotting out aging-horndog quips. But at least he doesn’t resort to “NSP.”
Quartet hinges on the subplot of once-married Reggie and Jean’s uneasy reunion at the English retirement home and the heady prospect of the foursome’s performing the Act 3 quartet from “Rigloletto” in celebration of Verdi’s birthday. The tension of the subplot is for the most part addressed and resolved in Quartet’s first act, while the buildup to the big performance drags for three scenes in Act 2, with character revelations made amid a rehearsal that never gets off the ground, choosing and trying on costumes and applying makeup. The pace is slow, which is undoubtedly the real-life pace of a retirement home, but too slow to appreciate what Harwood is trying to say about courage and living in the moment.
The chief disappointment of the story is the “Rigoletto” sequence itself. Earlier in the play, Wilfred and then especially Reggie make the point that there is no art without feeling. And yet Reggie, Jean, Wilfred and Cecily lip-sync their performance, principally because Jean no longer has a singing voice, and because they’re all, well, old. To see the four mouthing the words rings hollow and doesn’t look as if any of them is feeling the art of Verdi or the art within themselves.
This does not detract from a likable performance from the ever-dependent Foxworth, a Globe associate artist, or from Franz’s pained yet restrained Jean. Her sadly wistful remarks to Cecily about sex are as soft and surprising as Wilfred’s are loud and predictable.
David L. Coddon is theater critic for San Diego CityBeat