'Opus'

Michael Kaye and Becky Webber appear in Olney Theatre's production of "Opus." (Handout photo, Handout photo / June 16, 2011)

The easiest part of forming a string quartet may be finding four good musicians. Much trickier is finding players who can get along with one another, on- and offstage.

Michael Hollinger's absorbing and often funny 2006 play "Opus," which has been given a taut production at the Olney Theatre Center, examines a fictional ensemble from the inside out. The Lazara Quartet is in crisis mode as the work opens. The original violist, Dorian, has been fired by the other members, and there isn't much time to regroup before a televised concert at the White House.

In due course, we learn the complicated reasons for the vacancy, including Dorian's relationship with first violinist Elliott. The new violist, Grace, walks into a messy emotional world, but how and why she sticks with it provides a lot of the play's fuel.

Except for a wildly unlikely and unsatisfying coda, "Opus" hits some compelling notes, which resonate in the Olney staging, directed by Jim Petosa.

Michael Kaye puts Elliott's snarky wit across with particular flair. Benjamin Evett persuasively conveys the dark and light sides of Dorian's personality. Becky Webber gets to the heart of the nervous, eager Grace.

Shelley Bolman is an engaging Alan, the second violinist who steers the most even course through the musical and extra-musical waves. And Paul Morella does nicely nuanced work as Carl, the cellist with health issues.

The actors are reasonably convincing when they mime playing instruments (left-hand vibrato motions would help). Cristina Todesco's sleek set includes metaphors for the many strings that could snap at any minute.

"Opus" runs through July 3 at Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road. Call 301-924-3400 or go to olneytheatre.org.

Tim Smith