More than 30 years after her death, soprano Maria Callas remains the benchmark for interpretive intensity and insight in opera. That's one reason why Terrence McNally's first Callas-centric play, "The Lisbon Traviata," has retained such potency since its 1985 premiere. The other reason for this comic-tragic work's success, of course, is that it's just so entertaining, a point reaffirmed by the Kennedy Center's handsome new production -- one of three operatically attuned plays by McNally being presented at the center.
Sure, there are some contrived, awkward turns in the plot (the finale, with its heavy-handed resonance of Bizet's "Carmen," threatens to turn into camp horror). But reservations are swept aside by this tight, sensitive staging.
The well-knit cast, directed by Christopher Ashley, features a knock-out performance by John Glover as Mendy, the ultimate opera queen, desperate for the latest pirate recording of his beloved Maria. Glover does flamboyance fabulously, but in such a natural manner as to create a three-dimensional and endearing, not just amusing, character. The actor's delivery of the why-I-love-Callas monologue over the phone (McNally's writing at its best) achieves remarkable eloquence.
Malcolm Gets is persuasive as Stephen, Mendy's best friend and fellow operaholic, who faces an unraveling domestic arrangement. Manu Narayan does a nuanced job as Stephen's other half, Mike. And Chris Hartl reveals, um, promise as Paul, the young man whose unclothed entrance signals the play's shifting axis.
"The Lisbon Traviata" runs through April 11 at the Kennedy Center. Call 800-444-1324 or go to kennedy-center.org.