“You’re not in love with me, Vincent,” says Maria Malibran (Neuwirth) in a typically squashy passage from Golden Age. “You are in love with the idea of me, the myth.” La Malibran is talking to Vincenzo Bellini (Pace), composer of Norma and other bel canto masterworks, but she might just as well be dressing down playwright Terrence McNally, author of this ham-handed mediocrity. That McNally cares deeply about opera is beyond question; everything else about Golden Age is dubious. Set backstage in Paris, on the 1835 opening night of Bellini’s I puritani, the play is a contrived mélange of history lesson (sans accuracy), farce (sans humor) and romantic melodrama (sans romance or drama).
In McNally’s gossipy telling, Bellini is a restless bisexual genius—noodling at the piano, he turns out strains from Cats and Tristan und Isolde—with a foreshadowing cough, a droopy quasiboyfriend (Will Rogers) and a scandalous diva gal pal in Malibran (whom the playwright makes over into a ruined proto-Callas). Via foolish subplots, the play reduces the legendary singers known as the Puritani Quartet to stereotype: a vain soprano (Dierdre Friel), a sensitive tenor (Eddie Kaye Thomas), a wolfish baritone (Lorenzo Pisoni) and a grumpy, aging bass (Ethan Phillips). Directed stiffly by Walter Bobbie, Golden Age winds up replicating the very sins—hackery, vulgarity, dull exposition—that its version of Bellini decries onstage. The objects of McNally’s obsession deserve better than maudlin fan fiction.—Adam Feldman