note: entire contents copyright 2002 by Carl A. Rossi
Stephen…..Peter A. Carey
Mendy…..Neil A. Casey
Time: The late 1980's
Place: Two apartments in the West Village, New York City
Any production of Terrence McNally's THE LISBON TRAVIATA rests on its director in order to succeed. The play demands four good actors as well, but Mr. McNally has written a tricky play about opera and, especially, operatic emotions, with two completely opposite acts – Comedy and Tragedy – and if its director cannot bring out the dark motifs of Act Two that lie imbedded in the gaiety of Act One, an audience may feel it is watching two different plays. As is the case at the Lyric Stage.
In Act One, Mendy has invited Stephen over to his apartment for dinner and to listen to opera records (remember records?); primarily those of his idol, the Greek-American soprano Maria Callas (1923-77) known for both the conviction she brought to her roles (despite an increasingly flawed voice) and for her stormy, yea, operatic personal life. Stephen has accepted for two reasons: his partner (Mike) is entertaining a much younger man (Paul) in their apartment, and he himself is planning a late-night date with a waiter/would-be poet (Hal). Mendy is hyper and fussy; Stephen is low-key and sardonic. A mutual love for Callas is the basis of their friendship (though Mendy carries a torch for Stephen). Stephen's mentioning a Callas recording that Mendy has never heard of – the 1958 LA TRAVIATA, recorded "live" in Lisbon – sends the latter into frenzied attempts to track it down by (1) calling several record stores (while posing as Renato Scotto's secretary); (2) trying to wheedle Stephen into going back to his now-occupied apartment to fetch his own copy; and calling Mike (3) to let him (Mendy) into the apartment to get Stephen's copy or (4) to drop off the recording on the way to a movie with Paul. (Did I mention, children, that Mendy is an Opera Queen?) While waiting for one of these miracles to happen, Mendy and Stephen dish various divas and records, act out scenes from operas and discuss friends and lovers, with growing intimations that all is not well between Stephen and Mike. Hal calls to cancel his date with Stephen, and Mike suddenly appears at the door with LA TRAVIATA – but with a twist.
Act Two takes place the next morning in Stephen and Mike's apartment. Where Mendy's apartment is warm and cluttered (record albums scattered everywhere), this apartment is sparse and streamlined, with albums stacked alphabetically on a shelf (as you may gather, Stephen is a bit of a control freak). Enter Stephen, having babysat Mendy till the wee hours (still obsessing over that damned recording). Stephen meets Paul, who has spent the night in the apartment, and he tries being civil but the green-eyed monster surfaces, triggering Mike's announcement that he is moving out to start a new life with Paul after living eight years in Callas' shadow. If you know the finale to CARMEN, you'll know the rest. Surprisingly, the play does NOT end with Stephen uttering, "La commedia . . . è finita."
No, the commedia is finita at the end of Act One.
When I first read Mr. McNally's play several years ago, I thought its construction was faulty, but on rereading it after seeing the Lyric production, I'm surprised at how balanced it really is; that all-important balance is the bridge between the two acts. A knowledge of opera and sopranos can only add to a viewer's enjoyment; if not, never fear – Mr. McNally draws his humor from three time-honored cliches: (1) Callas is a goddess; (2) female opera singers are vain, fat and/or butch and (3) the men who admire them are homosexual. Act One is beautifully written – catty, camp, even touching – a bag of brightly-colored marbles scattered across the floor (it could stand alone as a one-act play, if needs be). Act Two, on the other hand, is a somber line of dominoes waiting to fall.
There are a few quibbles:
1. That all-important Lisbon recording had been around for awhile (it was EMI/Angel's only Callas recording of LA TRAVIATA before it brought out her 1955 LaScala one), so Mendy surely would have heard of it – and have it in his collection.
2. In Act One, Mendy grills Paul (over the phone) because he claims to have attended the Lisbon performance as a child, which is pretty amazing, considering the character was born in the mid-1960s and Callas' performance was in 1958 (the year is stated as fact in the play).
3. The "planting" of a pair of scissors in Act Two. (Mr. McNally seems to say, "Remember these scissors; they play an important role later on".)
4. The final confrontation between Stephen and Mike is a line-for-line showdown taken from Carmen and Don José and played without any awareness on the characters' part; the effect is, shall we say, forced?
But back to that all-important balance….
Act One is a lengthy duet between Mendy and Stephen, but director Eric C. Engel has shifted the focus on Mendy, casting Stephen in the role of straight man (no pun intended). Granted, Mendy has the better lines and turns, and Neil A. Casey – in his Butterfly kimono and Elton John glasses – contributes yet another endearing, rabbitty portrayal, especially in his epic quest for a circular piece of vinyl (is Mendy a lost soul? The topic is never brought up). But Mendy all but vanishes by Act Two, leaving us with an underexposed Stephen who now must take us into tragedy, whether we want to go there or not. As played by Peter A. Carey in Act One, Stephen is far too casual, almost bored, in his operatic interests; he, too, worships at the same shrine, but where Mendy is all flutter and gush, Stephen's devotion flows deep and dark, coloring his thoughts, words, and actions; his snapping to his rubbernecking friend, "If you don't shut up, I am going to break your face open!" is but the tip of Act Two's iceberg, not a sudden tear in the gossamer. Not for nothing does Mendy tell him, "Have it your way. You usually do." Stephen plays for keeps – in diva worship, opera trivia and in love. (Interestingly, Mr. McNally has Mendy, not Stephen, as a divorced man with a son.) Mr. Carey fares better on the whole in Act Two, slowly unraveling before our eyes; but without Mr. Engel preparing that sense of obsession in Act One, it's a shock to see Stephen revealed as a terribly troubled man who has waded so far into the Callas cult that he sinks (whereas Mendy will bob on the surface forever).
Bill Mootos brings his reliable live-wire energy to the thankless role of Mike (whose one action is fleeing from his captor); if ever cast as Stephen, he would easily bring out the character's intensity that the well-intentioned Mr. Carey must dig for. (Ironically, Mr. Mootos' scenes with Jason Schuchman's Paul show a budding obsession itself.) Mr. Schuchman plays the "normal" Paul quite nicely – as if listening to opera is bad for you – but he makes his first entrance in the nude and stands exposed long enough to make you wonder if Paul be exhibitionist or nitwit. (Since Paul freezes by the record shelf, why not have him quickly snatch up a record album to use as a fig leaf, with inappropriate artwork on the front cover; say, a close-up of an open-mouthed tenor, baritone or bass?)
Should you ever read Mr. McNally's published script used for the 1989 Broadway production, you'll find the play ends on a completely different note. Either Lyric Stage went back to the 1985 "verismo" version or Mr. McNally has revised his play once again. Given a choice, an audience might prefer the 1989 ending. I would, or hope for something more upbeat should there be another revision. Some operas DO have happy endings.