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'Quartet' struggles to find right tone

LOWELL -- In ''Quartet," playwright Ronald Harwood imagines a nursing home for musicians that caters to divas and virtuosos of years past. What happens, Harwood asks, to aging singers who must constantly confront their former selves on decades-old recordings? Four artists struggle to accept the passage of time and reconcile memories of stardom with their less luminous present.

The comedy, making its regional premiere at Merrimack Repertory Theatre, does manage to entertain at moments, but the play often seems to be reminding the audience that seniors have feelings, desires, and sex drives, too -- a message that feels more condescending than celebratory.

''Quartet" begins with a trio. Wilfred is a randy, robust baritone who once played the title role in ''Rigoletto." ''Talking dirty to Cissy excites me," Wilfred admits to his friend Reginald while an oblivious and slightly senile Cecily Robson listens to an old recording of herself on her headphones. Reginald, a tenor with a penchant for tidy aphorisms about art, is annoyed by Wilfred's lustiness. Refined and asexual, he is the opposite of his earthy, Falstaffian friend.

Trapped in retirement, the three singers lead a somewhat monotonous existence. But their ennui evaporates with the arrival of Jean, an aging diva whose finances and hip bone have conspired to hobble her golden years. An ex-performer who believes the spotlight still follows her, Jean is intent on upstaging everyone around her. Reginald, Jean's ex-husband, has little tolerance for her haughtiness -- a quality that seems exacerbated by her resentment over being stuck in a nursing home. When a gong signaling mealtime sends residents scrambling to the cafeteria like Pavlov's dogs, Jean swoons and collapses on the couch. It seems she's been condemned to a Sartrian hell for aged artistes.

The aches and pains of old age give ''Quartet" its comic momentum, but Harwood also wants to show the sunset years as a time for reconciliation, reflection, and confession. In the second act, each character gets a spoken aria of sorts in which he or she struggles to come to grips with the past.

Roger Forbes as Wilfred and Jill Tanner as Cissy stand out for combining comic quirks with their characters' physical and emotional struggles. The pace of the final preview performance was languid at points, but the ensemble began to find the play's tragicomic rhythms in the second act.

The play culminates in an unusual rendering of the famous quartet from Verdi's ''Rigoletto." This ending is intended to be a reaffirmation of the veteran singers' creative spirits rather than a collective swan song. Unfortunately, it lacks the climactic vigor and sense of accomplishment that the playwright, better known for ''The Dresser" and his screenplay for ''The Pianist," would like.

A two-act play by Ronald Harwood. Directed by Gavin Cameron-Webb. Set, Bill Clarke. Costumes, Liz Covey. Lights, Stephen Quandt.
At: Merrimack Repertory Theatre, through March 12. 978-454-3926.

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