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Master Class at Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre: Theater review

Kelli Harrington impressively embodies Terrence McNally's cartoonish version of Maria Callas, but her students hardly register next to her

Photograph: Adam Veness

Kelli Harrington in Master Class at Theo Ubique

Photograph: Adam Veness

Kelli Harrington inMaster Class at Theo Ubique

Photograph: Adam Veness

Rachel Klippel and Kelli Harrington inMaster Class at Theo Ubique

Photograph: Adam Veness

Kevin R. Siembor and Kelli Harrington inMaster Class at Theo Ubique

Photograph: Adam Veness

Ashlee Hardgrave and Kelli Harrington inMaster Class at Theo Ubique

Photograph: Adam Veness

Kelli Harrington inMaster Class at Theo Ubique

For an apparent fan of the 20th-century opera megastar Maria Callas, playwright Terrence McNally doesn't give much real insight into the diva in his gossipy 1995 bioplay. What seems meant as a tribute comes across as diminishing, portraying Callas as a bitchy rumormonger dispensing clichés about art. What McNally does provide, though, is a juicy-as-hell role for an actress of a certain age and wattage. While Kelli Harrington, who plays Callas in Theo Ubique's intimate revival, arrives at the role at least ten years too early, hers is a largely admirable embodiment.

McNally bases his work ever so loosely on a series of master classes Callas taught at Juilliard in the early 1970s—some years after she'd retired from performing with her singing voice gone forever, a few before she died in 1977 at the age of 53. McNally's Maria sees three students over the course of two acts, but she spends more time imperiously regaling us with stray thoughts, remembrances and Inside the Prima Donna's Studio scuttlebutt. (She won't hear a word spoken against her rivals, unless it comes out of her own mouth.) During the lessons, her students (sopranos Rachel Klippel and Ashlee Hardgrave and tenor Kevin R. Siembor) tend to fade away as Maria loses herself in reverie, recalling her onstage triumphs and offstage affair with Aristotle Onassis.

McNally's version of Callas is malleable enough to allow for varied interpretations; the role was originated on Broadway by the searingly direct Zoe Caldwell, with other prominent Marias including Patti LuPone, Dixie Carter and Tyne Daly. It's a character that asks not for impersonation so much as inhabitation. Harrington's youth is a tough hurdle to overcome when it comes to achieving the necessary gravitas and intimidation factor, but the actor (who's coming off back-to-back Jeff Award wins for Theo Ubique's productions of The Light in the Piazza and Aspects of Love) draws us into her confidence, commanding the small stage with both zingy one-liners and deep wells of feeling.

It's the students, however, that fail this Class. For the play to feel like anything more than a monologue with interruptions, Maria's "victims" need be in both awe and fear in the diva's presence. There's hay to be made of these roles; Audra McDonald won a Tony Award as the final soprano in the original staging. Yet when they aren't singing, the three supporting actors in Fred Anzevino's production barely read even in a room as cozy as the No Exit Cafe, registering merely as wishy-washy. As written by McNally, one of the students protests Maria's attempts to guide her performance, saying, "I'm not an actress; I'm just a singer." This cast seems to have taken that line too much to heart. And that won't stand up to a Callas, whether the real thing or McNally's puppet Master.