One of my (many) gripes about contemporary theater is that nobody's doing adult shows anymore. And no, I don't mean it that way, you pervert. I mean plays written for grown-ups to enjoy: smart, entertaining work that isn't, on one hand, some overblown, mind-numbing plastic musical or, on the other, an airless, intellectually masturbatory academic exercise. I'm talking about plays which can entertain without either condescending or pandering.
By way of example, let me mention David Auburn's Proof, a show which attempts to do nothing other than captivate an audience with glorious storytelling for a couple of hours.
City Theatre presents the world premiere of a new entry in the derby: Willy Holtzman's The Morini Strad, a play suggested by real-life events and given nicely understated and rigorously precise direction by Daniella Topol.
Erica Morini was a legendary concert violinist who died in 1995. In Holtzman's play, she's a temperamental diva (in the grand tradition) who has come to "the final movement" of her life. She engages Brian Skarstad, a violin restorer and would-be maker (also based on a real person), to repair and sell her most prized possession -- a Stradivari violin worth millions.
Most of the evening is an emotional cat-and-mouse game between the two, and on that level Morini Strad is a highly entertaining and sophisticated bit of theater filled with fun twists and turns.
Holtzman, unfortunately, succumbs to the temptation to make the play mean something -- in this case, something about the struggle between a normal life and an artistic one. A rather hackneyed subject, all in all, addressed here not with insight but with well-worn sentiments.
This dichotomy is echoed in the characters as well. Morini is a ceaselessly compelling creation. With a pitch-perfect performance by Carla Belver, we're always left wanting much, much more from this character. Skarstad, however, is where Holtzman parks most of his platitudes, and stacked up against Morini, the poor thing never stands a theatrical chance. I mean, if an actor of David Whalen's ability can't levitate him -- and his effort is nothing short of inspiring -- that should tell you something.
I want to make special mention of Brad Peterson's excellent sound design for the show, and costume-designer Angela M. Vesco and the gorgeous outfit she's come up with for Morini.
Enthralling theater created merely to enthrall is enough. Holtzman should quit while he's ahead ... and leave life lessons to the Hallmark people.
The Morini Strad continues through Dec. 12. City Theatre, 1300 Bingham St., South Side. 412-431-2489.