This is a story of four men and a fiddle. And a woman and a viola, too, but let's not complicate matters overly. Michael Hollinger's very funny chamber-music drama is all about the experience of playing in a string quartet, which is, if Brendon Fox's production for Portland Center Stage is to be believed, like really amazing sex with an irremediably crazy, emotionally abusive partner.
When we meet the Lazara String Quartet, the crazy has boiled over. Lead violinist Elliot (Chris Coleman) has fired violist Dorian (Matthew Boston), who is also his ex-boyfriend, for reasons having as much to do with sundered romance as with Dorian's kidnapping of Elliot's priceless violin. Part of a violin-viola pair made by a fictional 18th-century instrument maker, Pietro Lazara, that was given to the quartet, the violin is the script's totem; whoever holds it holds the power. The drama unfolds slowly, in flashbacks interpolated with the addition of Grace (Sarah Stevens), Dorian's young replacement, to the quartet one week before the group is scheduled to perform at the White House. The basic elements of the story are the same as any sports movie—the team must face down extraordinary odds before the big game—but the game is Beethoven's Op. 131, and the odds are bad tempers, broken hearts and cancer.
I've heard a lot of snarky skepticism about Coleman—who joined PCS as artistic director in 2001 but has never appeared on a local stage—performing in the show. It was unfounded. Coleman is well suited to the role of the uptight, vain, occasionally cruel musician, and has the good sense to keep his emoting restrained in contrast to Boston's expansively maniacal performance. Chris Hietikko and Greg Jackson turn in good performances as the cellist and second violinist, the peacemakers of the group. Stevens has much less to work with, especially in the play's somewhat hysterical final scene, after the White House performance. It's an unnecessary addition, out of pace with the rest of the script, but masterfully directed by Fox , who retains a taut focus as suspenseful as any ticking-bomb Hollywood thriller.
SEE IT: Gerding Theater, 128 NW 11th Ave., 445-3700, pcs.org. 7:30 pm Tuesdays-Fridays, 2 and 7:30 pm Saturdays-Sundays, noon and 7:30 pm Thursdays. Closes May 8. $33-$58.