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Playing linebacker in the NFL may be less perilous than playing in a string quartet. Or so one imagines after seeing Michael Hollinger's Opus. Hollinger should know, since he was a violist before he became a playwright.

  Like great chamber music, the play is small without feeling minimal. But a chamber ensemble requires collaboration, which can require ample stress and strain. The Lazara String Quartet, composed of Elliot (Bob Edes Jr.), Alan (Drew Battles), Carl (John Neisler) and Dorian (Vatican Lokey), has survived the demands of touring and performing. It has nearly finished recording a complete Beethoven string quartet cycle — all except for Opus 131, one of the most difficult chamber pieces ever written.

  The pressure of trying to get the music right is further complicated by personal imbroglios. "A string quartet is like a marriage, except with more fidelity," one of the players says. But conjugal bliss does not characterize the Lazara String Quartet in rehearsal, which is where we see them in much of the play. Dorian plays viola for the group but is a better violinist than Elliot, who plays first violin. Unfortunately, Dorian is unstable and difficult. To complicate matters, the two are lovers. The undertone of envy and resentment about who gets to play the violin tears them apart.

  Early in the play, the group ousts Dorian. Grace (Shauna Rappold) auditions for his place, and the group asks her to join them, disrupting the all-male harmony.

  The subject of the play is unusual, and the tone is ambiguous. It isn't a comedy, but there are many laugh lines, mostly throwaway wisecracks. But gloomier realities cloud the emotional landscape as one member struggles to beat cancer.

  The Lazara Quartet reaches the high point of its career when it is invited to perform at a televised concert at the White House. Discord immediately erupts from the backstage dramas.

  The cast turns in authentic and engaging performances. Director Mark Routhier successfully balances the flashes of humor with the darker level of conflict. Opus is a fascinating start to Southern Rep's season. — Dalt Wonk


8 p.m. Thu.-Sat.; 3 p.m. Sun., through Oct. 11

Southern Rep, The Shops at Canal Place, 333 Canal St., third floor, 522-6545;


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