Mendy is bogged down with boundless melancholy. No one seems to love him. He is divorced. His material wealth masks his spiritual emptiness. He is cut off from the outside world in his opera box-like apartment
and most excruciating—he can’t get hold of a recording of Maria Callas’ 1958 La Traviata in Lisbon’s San Carlo Opera House to top off his collection.
Terrence McNally’s The Lisbon Traviata is a comic tragedy about fixations. For Mendy (John Glover), one of McNally’s most memorable characters, it’s a passion for opera and for a mock-heroic defense of La Divina—Maria Callas. Ensconced in his plush but cluttered New York City digs, lined wall-to-wall with record albums, (sets by Derek McLane), Mendy and his after-dinner guest, Stephen (Malcolm Gets) are discussing “Maria,” the great and only love of Mendy’s life.
The Lisbon Traviata is an opera and McNally’s bigger-than-life characters, under the skillful hand of director Christopher Ashley, are operatic. McNally’s long monologues crescendo and diminuendo like arias with a breathtaking presto-tempo. Ashley’s production succeeds in making us see and hear two stories develop into one dramatic arc, an important point as New York critics in the past have carped about the play’s split-personality. Glover and Gets give full-valued nuance to McNally’s nutty characters. Both performers help the disjointed play that feels like two one-acts in tone, succeed as a single play.
Act I is vintage-style McNally, replete with scissor-sharp wit, reminiscent of an Oscar Wilde drawing room comedy. Both Mendy and Stephen, in a platonic friendship, are delightful name-droppers. We see them in the throes of trashing 20th century opera divas, from Joan Sutherland and Renata Tebaldi, to Renata Scotto and Beverly Sills. Stephen, who has taken refuge with his long-time friend, is a book editor with a big publisher, which explains his wide-ranging, encyclopedic knowledge of who’s who. (You don’t have to be a music scholar to enjoy this sequence, but brief program notes to help us identify names like Zinka Milanov would be useful.) Privately, Stephen is deeply depressed over the unraveling of an eight-year liaison with his live-in mate Michael (Manu Narayan), a medical doctor who is having an affair with a younger man, Paul (Chris Hartl).
It’s all in the timing in one show stopping monologue. Positioned center stage, Mendy, with phone to ear, cuts loose with a mock-operatic aria that brought down the house with applause on opening night. Paul, who grew up in Portugal and had the good fortune to attend, but barely remembers, the breakthrough Lisbon Traviata, says Callas “stunk” and “was lousy.” In reaction, Mendy explodes, spieling out a long diatribe that crescendos into an agonized yell from the heart, “….Yes, she’s dead thanks to people like you! Murderer!” Moments like that make great theater.
A word begs to be said here about the lively, spontaneous, moment-to-moment acting of both John Glover and Malcolm Gets. Glover underplays the gay queen’s dandyish behavior and endows Mendy with a twinkling, cagey, warm charm that dips to sardonic tones to betray the character’s deep sense of loneliness and anxiety. Overall, Glover delivers a high-octane, tour-de-force performance that this aria and the entire play need. And Malcolm Gets is a worthy foil. We sense an anxiety, even despair, in the two main characters. Both actors make this show so worth seeing.
Act I seems to be Mendy’s and Stephen’s act of riotous comedy, peppered with one wit-kicking moment after another. When impersonating melodramatic re-enactments of the death scenes from Carmen, Tosca, and Madam Butterfly, for example, the actors are hysterically funny.
There’s an abrupt switch in Act II: In bleak morning light, we are in Stephen’s and Mike’s place where album-filled walls copy Mendy’s place. But here, scaled-back, bare wood-floors, and chic décor predominate. Stephen, played by Gets with smoldering passion, surprises Mike and Paul in the morning-afterlight slanting through the Venetian blinds. We’re set up for a douse of acid bitterness on fiery passion, as if McNally, through his actors, is saying: In this lifestyle, there are risks that run deeper than AIDS. (AIDS is valiantly joked about in Act I and spoken about in Stephen’s Act II “Farewell scene.”)
Paul (Chris Hartl) the Adonis who, expecting no one, walks nude into the living room, brings the radiant innocence of a guileless neophyte, wise enough to know he’s out of his depth, to the setting.
In the break-up scene, Mike (Manu Narayan, doing fine work), conveys the clinical coolness of a medical doctor, until alone with Stephen, he bursts out into a self-incriminating self-analysis, an agonizing monologue about loneliness, filled with sadness, that crescendos into an unexpected all-hell-breaks-loose operatic finale. Kudos go to all three actors for making a sensitive and difficult denouement ring true as the tragic consequences do in a grand opera.
First premiered in 1985 and revised since, The Lisbon Traviata, is the second in Nights at the Opera, a trio of plays by Terrence McNally, winner of four Tony Awards for his plays: Master Class,and Love! Valor! Compassion!, and for musical books for Ragtime and Kiss of the Spider Woman.
The Lisbon Traviata
By Terrence McNally
Directed by Christopher Ashley
Produced by The Kennedy Center Terrace Theatre
Reviewed by Rosalind Lacy
The Lisbon Traviata closes April 11, 2010.
- Erik Haagensen . Backstage
- Trey Graham . City Paper
- Tom Avila . MetroWeekly
Michael Toscano . Theatermania
Terry Ponick . Washington Times
- Peter Marks . The Post