"What's the point of having an obsession unless it damages you?" With such an insightful comment not just about art, but love, playwright Tom Rowan could have made his new play The Second Tosca into a drama or a comedy. Thankfully, he chose the latter. The story is filled with hopes, aspirations, and charismatic yet technical banter about opera, but the pace remains light on its feet. In opera lingo, the show is presented with spinto tonality: that is, it rests somewhere between the dramatic soprano and the lyric, soubrette, soprano, and it has mastered the portamento, a technique of gliding smoothly from pitch to pitch.
Much like classical comedies, Rowan introduces, in quick succession, a series of familiarly quirky stock characters. From the hyperactive, wannabe diva, Darcy Green (Melissa Picarello) to her full-blown prima donna of a mentor, the sassy Gloria Franklin (Vivian Reed), to the innocent, goddess of a singer, Lisa Duvall (Rachel de Benedet), this show throws every sort of personality it can find into the mix, including an Italian ghost from the '50s (Eve Gigliotti). As for love interests, you've got Lisa's fiancee, an uptight maestro named Aaron Steiner (Mark Light-Orr), the nebbish, wunderkind composer Nathaniel (Jeremy Beck), and the strapping ASM, Ben (Tug Coker, who could double for Desperate Housewives' Mike). And while Lisa's trying to find her inner Tosca by flustering these men, her brother Stephen (Carrington Vilmont, a far less creepy version of Six Feet Under's David) is there to lend the wry, sage advice of an old gay soul. Or just to hit on all the guys.
The idea of using one art form to parallel that most ancient of art forms, love, is hardly anything new, but Rowan has found a way to put his passion for opera into a sublimely comic form, and the story feels fresh. I didn't even mind the occasionally superfluous and moralizing scenes, although credit for that is due to the fantastic cast, the likes of which I could watch for hours more. This is true especially of Ms. de Benedet, a true gem of the stage. With her sparkling, Chenoweth-like personality and effortlessly charming grace, it's no wonder all the men--and women--are crazy for her. Between her and the play, this is the most down-to-earth play to ever involve something as surreal as opera. Lisa may have discovered that every actor must learn to find their own Tosca, and to live their own life (not that of their brothers or fiancees), but it's hard to imagine any other actor getting a better grip on this role than Rachel.
As for direction, I couldn't ask for more than what Kevin Newbury has done to the modest 45th Street Theatre. Charlie Corcoran's wall-less backstage lets us see what's going on in both the green room and the dressing room, but Newbury's the one who fills that space with energy. He's also taken the script to heart, especially the comment that "Perfect isn't the same as good." The pacing is tight, but not artificial; the ghost is haunting, but not distracting; the characters are over-the-top, but always human. Unlike the ghost, the life hasn't been staged out of this wonderfully funny show.