Forget about shock rock: Terrence McNally's cautionary tale of sexual jealousy and obsession could convince you that it's opera recordings that really need the warning label "Don't try this at home."
"The Lisbon Traviata", premiered in 1985 and revised by the author several times since, is vintage McNally. Engaging and bitchy but also as overwritten and melodramatic as opera itself, it contains some of his best writing, two of his perennial subjects (gay relationships and Maria Callas), and one of his most memorable characters, the flamboyantly vicious opera queen Mendy. Full of insider jokes and ribald one-liners, it's always been tough to stage; a perennial critique has been that it's really two one-acts with very different tones trying to masquerade as a full-length play.
Director Curt Arnold's production at the Beck Center succeeds in a major respect: through balanced casting and sensitive direction, he let me see, for the first time, the dramatic arc of the play. In Arnold's hands, "The Lisbon Traviata" is very much the story of the disintegration of an eight-year relationship between two gay men, from the point-of-view of the unhappy dumpee. Stephen (Joseph Ruffner), a depressed literary editor and opera fanatic, is on the verge of losing hunky doctor Mike (Vincent DePaul) to Paul (Brian Breth), a winsomely sexy Columbia student. He takes refuge for an evening at the apartment of his fellow fan Mendy (Pat Mazzarino), to dish about divas, listen to records, and avoid thinking about Mike and Paul's evening date. But motormouth Mendy is a master at picking at scabs: by the end of the evening, his self-centered meddling has propelled Stephen into a confrontation with tragic consequences.
Though neither Ruffner nor Mazzarino give the tour-de-force performances that McNally's difficult word-arias need, somehow the quartet works, with the two acts and its two main couples contrasting nicely. Mendy and Stephen are full of quips and elevated rhetoric about operatic passion, but their incessant wounding word-play is propelled by an anxious loneliness. Mazzarino gives Mendy a lighter touch; his mischief-making seems more clueless than vengeful. Ruffner's Stephen is excellent in Act I -- nervy and preoccupied, he's more than a match for Mendy -- but his performance stays pretty much on one level, rather than building to the climax McNally gives him.
Both DePaul and Breth are excellent as the younger lovers. Compact and good-looking, with flashing dark eyes and a compelling warmth, the moment DePaul walks in you can feel the stakes zoom higher: "ah, so THIS is what Stephen has to lose, no wonder he's desperate." In a smaller but pivotal role, Breth looks as comfortable in his bare skin as a golden young lion -- until he pads into the underwear-strewn living room to find Stephen waiting to verbally carve him up.
"The Lisbon Traviata" still has a mess of an ending: the metaphor is muddled (are we in "Traviata" or "Carmen"?), it goes on too long, and in this production, Stephen's Callas monologue feels more like an outtake from McNally's "Master Class" than a motivating revelation. And Don McBride's two low-budget apartment sets are way too shabby for the Manhattan milieu that McNally has so limned so precisely. Nevertheless, it's a thoughtful and intelligent production of a rich, albeit flawed work by a major contemporary playwright.