The Lisbon Traviata

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Editorial Review

Theater review: 'The Lisbon Traviata' at the Kennedy Center

By Peter Marks
Friday, March 26, 2010

We all know there's too much violence on TV. But could it be that dangerous messages are also being circulated at higher elevations of the culture, where death and disaster nightly fill the impressionable heads of Puccini, Verdi and Bizet fans?

Yes, I'm talking about that scourge of the tux-and-stole set, opera. So thank the stars that the deleterious effects of too many nights of "Madame Butterfly," "Rigoletto" and "Carmen" are brought to the surface in "The Lisbon Traviata," Terrence McNally's scaldingly funny and ultimately disturbing comedy-drama about a devotee of Maria Callas's who conflates his romantic misery with an opera's tragic denouement.

The taut revival of this 1987 play is the second of three works that the Kennedy Center is presenting under the banner "Terrence McNally's Nights at the Opera," a trio thematically bound by the playwright's lifelong worship of opera. With its extraordinary change in pitch between acts, "Lisbon" is one of McNally's more daring plays and one of his best.

You'll be spared the details here, but be aware that the hilarious highs of the first act don't necessarily sustain you to the curtain call. Remember, too, that this is a story about gay men in New York at the height of the AIDS epidemic, when few had faith in the adage that love conquers all.

The Kennedy Center's "Lisbon," staged by Christopher Ashley with a fine feel for the play's tense undercurrents, had wobbly moments Wednesday night, when lines were stumbled over and some of the gamesmanship, particularly in Act 2, seemed a bit tentative.

No adjustment is required, however, in the evening's one true bravura performance -- from John Glover. He is nothing less than sensational as the eccentric Mendy, who presides over the first act's delicious envelopment in opera trivia as if he himself had been trapped in a perpetual production of "Tosca."

Sporting a Fu Manchu mustache and other theatrical fashion accessories of the '80s (clunky boots and shearling), Glover alone is worth the price of admission to the Terrace Theater. And in tandem with an admirably simmering Malcolm Gets, playing the more difficult role of the agitated Stephen, whose long-term relationship with another man is crumbling, Glover bathes us giddily in McNally's brittle badinage. "He thinks he has AIDS," Glover mutters at one point, in reference to one of Mendy's lovelorn friends. " 'From what?' I said. 'From watching "Dynasty" reruns?' "

When McNally's on a roll, few writers are funnier, and "Lisbon's" first act is all roll. It's set in Mendy's Manhattan apartment, in a room that set designer Derek McLane dresses to look like an obsessive's library, with shelves of vinyl albums on every wall.

Mendy is entertaining book editor Stephen for the evening, and together they indulge their opera illness, bickering over which recording of which night of which opera to listen to, an exercise that turns into a dizzying contest of who's-heard-whom-in-what. (You don't have to know "Aida" from "Idomeneo" to get the joke.) It merely takes a mention by Stephen of his new recording of Callas's Lisbon performance in "La Traviata" to whip Mendy into a frenzied need to hear it RIGHT NOW.

Mendy's desire for Stephen's company extends beyond matching wits over Callas, Tebaldi and Scotto. But Stephen's heart belongs to Mike (Manu Narayan), a doctor with whom he shares an apartment and ever tinier dosages of affection. Mike, though, has the hots for Paul (Chris Hartl), a buff (and, for a moment, in the buff) graduate student. As the second act shifts to Stephen and Mike's sleeker flat, the whiff of an impending showdown asserts itself in their terse, clenched-jaw exchanges.

In this grimmer half of the proceedings, you have to console yourself that the play becomes less Mendycentric -- something akin to "Scenes from a Gay Marriage," or, as the stricken Stephen experiences it, a story too much like what he is used to onstage. "I can't think of anyone who ends up happy in opera," Stephen remarks earlier in the show. The words hang mournfully over the dazzlingly chilling twists McNally has in store.

Gets, a suave musical theater actor seen recently in the HBO version of "Grey Gardens" as the piano-playing pal of Jessica Lange's bizarre Edith Beale, keeps his Stephen at such a low boil in Act 1 that you might mistake it for a deficit of energy. By Act 2, you see that it's Stephen's festering anger and grief that the actor is trying to contain.

This confers credibility on what eventually transpires, even if the performance feels at times too morose. It's a tricky balance: You wonder whether the character might be more vivid if Stephen didn't seem quite so moment-to-moment gloomy; if, say, he were more revved up in his hypercompetitive opera battles with Mendy.

Narayan and Hartl create a solid impression of the guilt that accompanies Mike and Paul's exhilarating affair, and designer McLane expertly translates opera adoration into three dimensions -- most visibly the wall-to-wall shelves of albums. And somehow Glover, exuding passion, prickliness and neediness all at once, manages to vibrate comically in what appear to be four or five.

By Terrence McNally. Directed by Christopher Ashley. Sets, Derek McLane; costumes, David Woolard; lighting, Philip Rosenberg; sound, Jon Gromada; fight director, Steve Rankin. About 2 hours 15 minutes.