McNally's 'Traviata' is operatic

February 25, 1997|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

There's a scene in the second act of "The Lisbon Traviata" when an opera aficionado tries to explain the appeal of the genre to a skeptic. "Opera is about us, our life-and-death passions -- we all love, we're all going to die," he says.

That, in a nutshell, is what this Terrence McNally play -- receiving its Baltimore premiere at Everyman Theatre -- is all about.

Actually the play is more like two operas. Act One is comic opera; Act Two, tragic. But both are savage, and although the humorous first act is the one for which the play is better known, at Everyman it is the serious second act that succeeds best.

The two acts concern the same characters, with the first paving the way for the second. So, to begin at the beginning, the play opens with Mendy and Stephen -- two long-time gay friends and fans of the late soprano Maria Callas -- listening to opera recordings.

Of more than ample girth and dressed in a flouncy over-shirt, Jeff Keenan's Mendy is making more than an understatement when he admits, "I can't help it. I'm too much for most people." When he finds out that Timmy Ray James' far more reserved Stephen owns a pirated copy of "La Traviata," recorded by Callas in Lisbon in 1958, Mendy becomes a man obsessed. He must hear it and he must hear it tonight.

After hysterically berating a record store clerk over the telephone, Mendy defies Stephen's wishes and calls Stephen's companion of eight years, who is spending the night with a younger man. Stephen insists this young man is a passing fancy, but as Mendy suspects, Stephen's relationship is in jeopardy.

The second act focuses on that relationship, as the action shifts from Mendy's ornate, peach-colored apartment to Stephen's modern, black and gray one (both sets beautifully realized by Everyman's newly appointed resident set designer, Daniel Conway).

Deliberately returning earlier than planned, the increasingly bitter Stephen catches his lover, Mike (Tim Marrone), with his new love interest (Desmond G. Dutcher, who makes his entrance in the nude -- the prudish be warned).

What transpires next, however, is proof of how a skilled playwright can find the universal in the specific. Though Stephen and Mike are gay, the rent in their relationship will strike a painfully recognizable chord with anyone who's ever been the unwilling party in a break-up.

Under Grover Gardner's sensitive direction, James and Marrone give a highly empathetic depiction of a couple coming apart at the seams. But playwright McNally ends the realism there and deliberately plunges the action into the overwrought realm of grand opera.

Where Keenan's Mendy seemed to behave excessively in comparison to Stephen, now, in comparison to cool Mike, it is Stephen whose emotions go overboard. Similarly, though the two halves of the play are strikingly different in tone, when you reach the dire ending, you realize McNally has been working toward this all along.

There are some problems with the script. The second act, moving though it is, is overly long, and the script relies too dTC heavily on the telephone -- though the use of this prop can be justified somewhat since it reflects the difficulty the characters have in relating to each other face to face. Even their admiration of the heightened emotions of opera is most often experienced on vinyl, as opposed to in person.

McNally, himself a confessed Callas fanatic, wrote "The Lisbon Traviata" more than a decade before "Master Class," his 1996 Tony Award-winning salute to the great soprano, which is coming to the Lyric Opera House in April. While that play is an homage to Callas, "The Lisbon Traviata" is a satire on the extremes of fandom.

Together, they make a fascinating study of operatic passion. Prospective students at McNally's "Master Class" would do well to consider "The Lisbon Traviata" as a prerequisite.

'The Lisbon Traviata'

Where: Everyman Theatre, 1727 N. Charles St.

When: 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2: 30 p.m. Sundays; through March 16

Tickets: $15

Call: (410) 752-2208

Pub Date: 2/25/97

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