RESTORING A MASTERPIECE The Morini Strad centers on a lovely violin.
At first, the snide narcissism of aged violin prodigy Erica Morini (Laura Esterman) is an insufferable drag to the 40-something violin restorer, Brian (John G. Preston), whom she's trying to hire. As she pokes fun at where he trained (not France or Italy, but Utah) and waxes arrogant about her Carnegie Hall debut at age 14, he rolls his eyes and glances longingly toward the door. But then he gets his first look at the reason she's summoned him to her Manhattan apartment: Her sacred Davidoff Stradivarius. And suddenly he's a man in love. His eyes and voice soften as he holds it, extolling the instrument's subtle "tool marks on the scroll" and its "original Crimenese red varnish." The violin brings these two very different artists together in The Morini Strad, a sweet show about art and unlikely friendship, beautifully produced under the direction of Paul Meshejian, at Portland Stage Company.
Erica has her own reasons for hiring the workman-like Brian, less a celebrity than other restorers in the string world, to repair her $3 million instrument, and in part, it's because he's not of her own rarified set — though extremely well-versed in the nuances of classical music, he's got teenage kids and a mortgage like a regular guy. We experience his and Erica's very different lives through Anita Stewart's excellent two-tiered set, a study in contrasts: Stage right is the high-ceilinged elegance of Erica's apartment, with its dark wood and dusty rose chiffon across a tall window; stage left and raised above stage level is Brian's cozy little clubhouse of a workshop.
These represent the worlds that Erica and Brian must transcend to come together in appreciation and, eventually, mutual respect and even camaraderie. Esterman, with her fine, sharp cheekbones and sharp gaze, is superb as the difficult and formidably arch Erica. She beautifully (and very entertainingly) balances the prodigy's Old World gentility and cultural snobbery with her sometimes profane irreverence, as she yells to a student (Falmouth Middle School student Seoyeon Kim, who plays live and very nicely) that in playing the violin, "one is not slicing salami"; as she pronounces Sotheby's "a brothel"; as she colorfully takes issue with the artistry of modern prodigy Joshua Bell: "What a load of crap. The man's up there having sex with himself."
As Brian, Preston poses a contrast to her in everything from posture — loose and just slightly bearish against the tiny and precise Esterman — to his casual, unpretentious diction, and he makes a convincing evolution of Brian's slow warm to Erica. Brian doesn't, as he puts it, go in for any "mystical musical crap," and Preston nicely balances that attitude with how genuinely moved the man is by Erica's art and the richness of the art itself. As Brian better understands Erica and her sacrifices as a child prodigy and woman artist — she pronounced at the age of 14, on her way to Carnegie Hall, that she'd never have children — their rapport evolves predictably but affectingly from tetchy irritation to bantering warmth.