NEW YORK - Master Class is a play about Maria Callas, but its Broadway revival that opened Thursday night is just as much about a theatrical master, Tyne Daly. She shines as she plays Callas with the solid authority one would expect of the opera singer people cheered as La Divina, and with a real handle on Callas' regrets, quirks and demons.
Daly channels Callas in a steady and sure production staged by Stephen Wadsworth, an occasional director at the Metropolitan Opera. Unlike the original explosive version with Zoe Caldwell - a world premiere at the Philadelphia Theatre Company in 1995 that went on to Broadway and to win the best-play Tony in 1996 - the revival's pensive quality gives Daly room to reflect, to stunning result. She delivers more without moving a single facial muscle than many actors say with a wide range of emotions.
Daly's ploy - freezing an expression, timing it perfectly, thinking but never revealing just what's going through her character's head - leaves us hankering for the next line of Terrence McNally's shimmering script, when Daly puts Callas' thoughts into words with maximum impact, My friend Jeff, at the theater with me, effectively likened the performance of Daly, a Tony and multiple Emmy winner, to the screen style of Bette Davis; each can convey the essence of a character in both animated speech and immobile silence.
Daly moves easily around the stage in the Manhattan Theatre Club production, a self-made empress in a black pant-suit and heels, her sharp eye highlights sealing the deal; there's no question that she's a natural mixture of warmth and imperiousness.
The play's premise - it's modeled after master classes by Callas, who died in 1977 - has the audience as students looking on as their peers (Sierra Boggess, Alexandra Silber and Garrett Sorenson, all excellent) submit to Callas' scrutiny. Jeremy Cohen is the pianist who never says a word but also manages to convey many, and Clinton Brandhagen is the put-upon guy from building services, asked to supply Callas with her little necessaries.
In Master Class, McNally conjures a Callas of flesh and blood - as concerned about high Fs as she is about finding a decent wash-and-set at the beauty parlor. She is a woman who appears to command the world - played here by a woman who clearly commands a room.
Contact staff writer Howard Shapiro at 215-854-5727 or email@example.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/howardshapiro. Follow him on Twitter at #philastage. Hear his reviews at the Classical Network, www.wwfm.org.
"Master Class" is at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 W. 47th St., New York.