There's these two composers -- one the fashionable favorite, raking in plaudits, fame and money, the other working in comparative obscurity. Ironically, the first composer's work is utterly banal while the second is a genius who will alter the course of musical history.
No, it's not the Andrew Lloyd Webber/Stephen Sondheim story; it's Amadeus, written by Peter Shaffer about composers Antonio Salieri and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and now at the Pittsburgh Public Theater.
Salieri has ever wanted only one thing -- to celebrate God through music -- and has smothered his suspicions that he's really a hack with the adulation he receives at the Viennese court of Emperor Joseph II. But when the childish, vulgar Mozart shows up, Salieri realizes that God has favored the brat with true musical brilliance. God mocks him further, Salieri believes, by making Salieri himself the only person alive who can fully recognize Mozart's talent. Salieri's fury and pain only grow ("Why did He give me the desire then make me mute?"), and he decides to destroy God by destroying Mozart.
And this unfurls with Shaffer's own extraordinary gifts as a playwright. He's urbane and terrifying, funny and frightening, and all of it is deployed with a dazzling sense of theater. Shaffer (author of Equus and Lettice and Lovage) is a remarkable writer, and Amadeus his most astonishing play.
While the Public Theater production does offer its own rewards, especially Susan Tsu's costumes, I can't say that on the night I saw the show it had found its footing yet; several of the performances were still off the mark. Tony Abatemarco plays Salieri with appropriate glee but, unfortunately, has located little variation in the character. The lines tumble out (and this is a mammoth role), but Abatemarco plays most everything at the same pitch, intensity and purpose. The joy with which Salieri describes his first hearing of Mozart's music is nearly the same as his delight in being served a new dessert and, indeed, as the black fury of his declaration of war against God. Harris Doran's Mozart is equally bombastic (maybe there's something in the Viennese water), and when required to show Mozart's ecstasy, he has nothing left to do but splay his fingers and run around in circles.
I'm happy to say that by the time we get to the penultimate scene, Mozart's death, Abatemarco and Doran hit their emotional stride and are wonderfully heartfelt. Here's hoping they can get there sooner.
Amadeus continues through Feb. 24. Pittsburgh Public Theater, 621 Penn Ave., Downtown. 412-316-1600 or www.ppt.org