Ronald Harwood's love for the performing arts — especially his own service to the flamboyant actor-director Sir Donald Wolfit in his exceptional work The Dresser — is clear to see. What is a bit more puzzling is why he chose to write the atypical Quartet, a somewhat cloying depiction of life in a retirement home for former opera stars. Reginald Paget (Bill Lewis) and Wilfred Bond (Len Lesser) are close friends, helping each other through the tedium and malaise of old age. Wilf contends, "There are two questions you must not ask: 'How are you?' and 'What are your plans for today?' " Wilf longs for the body of Cecily Robson (Jacqueline Scott), though her memory seems to be deserting her with increasing rapidity. When opera great Jean Horton (Katherine Henryk) arrives, it sounds a sour note. She was previously married to Reg, among others, and he has not forgiven her for their brief union.
Though Harwood hangs the plot ostensibly on the others trying to convince a cranky and recalcitrant Jean to join them to sing the quartet they once performed from Verdi's Rigoletto, for a performance in the home, the play is about aging and jealousy. Director Laura James lets the first act crawl along at a very slow pace, though she handles the characters dressing for the quartet quite well. Lesser nails his punch lines with aplomb, though he swallows lines. Scott pushes her role into an uncomfortably cutesy and overly animated realm. Lewis finds more subtlety and wounded pride in his role, and Henryk is fine as the diva who, requiring hip-replacement surgery, tries to hold her head high while hobbling around on a cane. Harwood's conclusion, despite last-minute confessions from all, seems anticlimactic, as they all lip-synch the quartet. To find powerful, heartbreaking drama or fresh comedy in the woes of the aged is a task, and even a gifted playwright like Harwood is subject to its challenges.
Presented by Theatre 40 at the Reuben Cordova Theatre, 241 Moreno Dr., Beverly Hills. Thu.-Sat. 8 p.m., Sat 2 p.m. (May 12, 26 only), Sun. 2 p.m. (May 6, Jun. 3 only). Apr. 28-Jun. 3. (310) 364-0535.