The Lisbon Traviata

by Terrence McNally
Directed by Christopher Ashley
Starring Malcolm Gets, John Glover, Chris Hartl, Manu Narayan
The Kennedy Center Terrace Theatre, Washington DC
production web site:
through April 11, 2010 (extended)

Reviewed by Martha Wade Steketee
April 11, 2010

Callas.  Rare recordings.  Two friends, stories about their acquaintances and lovers, and romantic entanglements.  These are the themes of The Lisbon Traviata, in a short engagement as part of a trio of plays by Terrence McNally, that is just completing its run in Washington DC.

The Lisbon Traviata plays in the Terrace Theatre on the 4th floor of the Kennedy Center.  I always have to remind myself which bank of elevators to use to reach this theatre but once I’m up where I need to be on the western side of the building, I recall what I’ve seen in this steeply raked narrow theatre in the past.  Marian McPartland to Cleo Laine and John Dankworth to a mind-blowing Medea with Fiona Shaw (yes I know Zoe Caldwell‘s foray with this role, also seen at the Kennedy Center, was life altering for some and no I did not see that one and yes, this one was also a life highlight).  And now, I am about to fill a huge gap in my McNally knowledge with this viewing of part of the opera trilogy mini celebration of McNally plays “Nights at the Opera”.  I missed this Master Class (refined, awarded).  I saw Golden Age (newly minted and evolving) in its initial run in Philadelphia earlier this year.  And now the rarely produced The Lisbon Traviata, running here with its even more rarely seen original ending.  I sit in anticipation, feeling: tell me a story.

The first act is a taut story of passionate fandom in a closely crafted and intensely portrayed interaction illustrating  two kinds of fans enduring the costs and reveling in the benefits of their intense attachment to the memory and artistry of opera diva Maria Callas (1923-1977).  The second act becomes a low rent version that might have been envisioned as high operatic drama (domestic arrangement is rent asunder by a new love interest, and one character inexplicably reaches to violence to resolve the issue).  My musings here will focus on the power and resonance of the first act.

In this first delicious and magnificently acted act we see the costs and delights of intimate, invested, intense fandom as exhibited by Mendy (John Glover) and Stephen (Malcolm Gets) in Mendy’s mid 1980s Greenwich Village apartment limned floor to ceiling with opera LPs.  In this life dedicated to music and a heart dedicated to opera we feel our way to the passion for Maria Callas shared, debated, enjoyed, endured.

Full disclosure: I am a passionate fan of another female performer whose fans exhibit similar tendencies: factoid comparing, rare recording seeking, competitively collecting, and often living through a life lived in passionate excess (at times) and performance excellence (some argue at all times) — Judy Garland.  Both Callas and Garland were born in the 1920s (Garland in 1922, Callas in 1923) and both died young (Garland at 47 in 1969, Calls at 53 in 1977).  Both women were extolled as the greatest at what they did and changed the face of their respective art forms.  Each performed out of passion — which meant imperfect performances and performances that soared higher than any others experienced before or since.  Within moments of the curtain rising on the first act, observing the level of passionate interest in the minutiae of various performances and Callas’ personal life, the thrill of the chase to track down rare recordings, the sense of defensive ownership of Callas’ memory (this is set less than 10 years after she passed away) — all this made me say out loud: oh my goodness, in emotional truth, these men are Garland fans.

Stephen and Mendy test each other — who has which rare recording, which concert, which pirated experience, which failed note — even whose voice is on the recording in the background when one character is on hold when calling a record store.  The fan’s declaration of excellence despite tired vocal chords or other limitations, and claims to best of the best “Maria should have recorded everything” and “If it was worth it she did it”.  At one point, the two men literally square off from two ends of the stage, firing off details of performances and Maria’s vocal qualities —  dueling with factoids as the tiffs and archania that bind such friends in fandom.  Mendy’s pursuit of a recording of an elusive Traviata performance in Lisbon (a recording he does not know exists before the curtain goes up, and his pursuit becomes almost manic when he realizes Stephen has this recording) is so much like the world of some Garland fans, similarly pursuing sets of pirated and official recordings of another deceased diva … it stuns me.

Beyond this superficial dimension of acquisitive compulsion, McNally gets at deeper emotional truths for a set of the super fans of any genre and for any artist.  Mendy says at one point “opera doesn’t reject me — the real world does”.  Mendy says of Callas: “I love her so much, everything about her — I’ll take crumbs.”  And to the real point, stated by Mendy here and lived by Stephen in Act Two: “This doesn’t seem like such a terrible existence with people like her to illuminate it.”  And finally, about the burgeoning cadre of Callas fans (and this is true of many Garland fans also): “I sometimes think we’re increasing — Maria lives on through us! Or perhaps its the reverse.”  Ah, sigh.

Stephen articulates similar statements of living through Callas in the second Act.  But in the midst of the other plot details in the second act (Stephen’s wandering lover Mike, played by Manu Narayan, and Mike’s new lover Paul, played by Chris Hartl), this shift and the layered understanding this gives of opera fandom is lost.

The set (Derek McLane) and light (Philip Rosenberg) and sound (John Gromada) designs delightfully set off the images and sounds of the worlds of these two men, two shades of fandom, two different apartments limned with LPs.  Direction (Christopher Ashley) is dynamic.  While the second act serves to leave an overcooked taste, memories of the first act and John Glover’s magnificent portrayal of the unapologetically focused Callas fan and true blue faithful friend is worth the price of admission to this experimental revival.  One half of this play endures and may in fact have elements of the universal. This one act is now added to the set of my indelible experiences as an audience member in this intimate and special performance space.

© Martha Wade Steketee (April 12, 2010)

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