In “The Habit of Art,” the internal play, called “Caliban’s Day,” posits a fictional meeting in 1972 between aging poet W.H. Auden (played with a wonderfully coarse, cranky yearning by Donald Currie) and composer Benjamin Britten (an appealing, vulnerable John Fisher).
In the external play, a cast is rehearsing “Caliban’s Day” with the most underappreciated of theater workers, the stage manager (a nurturing yet efficiently businesslike Tamar Cohn), standing in for the missing director and reading for a few absent actors.
The playwright (a convincingly fussy Michael DeMartini) hovers, making everyone uneasy.
In “Caliban’s Day,” Britten arrives at Auden’s house in Oxford. The famous pair, with opposing approaches to revealing their homosexuality to the public, haven’t seen each other in 25 years.
Struggling to create an opera based on Thomas Mann’s “Death in Venice,” Britten seeks advice from his old friend. For his part, a past-his-prime and insecure Auden offers to write the libretto.
But the opera’s subject matter — an older man’s infatuation with a teenage boy — is fraught. Britten himself is a pederast.
Their meeting is interrupted by a rent boy (a blithe and matter-of-fact turn by Justin Lucas) that Auden has hired.
A biographer (Craig Souza) who has come to interview Auden breaks the fourth wall to serve as the narrator for “Caliban’s Day.”
Life and art intertwine as the actors continually interrupt the rehearsal. They question their roles (the actor who plays the biographer worries that he serves as a mere theatrical device) and object to some of the playwright’s, and the absent director’s, sillier ideas: an ugly mask and wig for Fitz (who’s playing Auden), talking furniture and even personified poetry and musical compositions.
They also argue over various elements of the script, including the dramaturgical significance of the rent boy.
Fisher directs with careful attention to both of the plays’ comic and poignant nuances, and he and his actors are adept at differentiating, and inhabiting, their two roles.
Bennett’s examination of the artist’s compulsion to create, and his empathy for the expendable non-artist as well, resonate deeply.
The Habit of Art
Presented by Theatre Rhinoceros
Where: Z Below, 470 Florida St., S.F.
When: 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays; closes April 13
Tickets: $15 to $35
Contact: (866) 811-4111, www.therhino.org