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Theater Review: "Lisbon Traviata," Tale of Two Opera Fans

(c) New York Times

June 19, 1985

By Mel Gussow

TERRENCE McNALLY'S new play, "The Lisbon Traviata," begins as a comedy about a diehard pair of opera enthusiasts; it ends as an impassioned dramatic equivalent of grand opera. The play (at Theater Off Park) is a long step away from such wry McNally comedies as "Bad Habits."

Mr. McNally's chosen form - two interlocking but contrasting acts -cannot contain all the author's embattled emotions and his irresistible urge toward ridicule. Each act is excessive, the first in quest of laughter, the second in quest of tragedy. However, before the evening arrives at the last, disjunctive chord, it has taken the audience on a vicarious and unsettling journey.

The protagonist, a playwright named Stephen (Benjamin Hendrickson) is in a deeply fallow artistic period and is suffering a severe personal crisis. He has two consuming obsessions - grand opera and his lover. In the first act, it is opera that is his primary concern, as exemplified by Maria Callas, who is adored for her art and for her tragic vision.

Stephen has apparently seen or heard all of Callas's performances, including the obscure "Lisbon Traviata." His collection of phonograph records, many of them pirated, is comprehensive, as is his name-dropping knowledge of the opera world. Mr. McNally's humor is malevolent to the point of bitchiness, as Stephen and a fellow opera buff (Seth Allen) compare notes on divas and attack sacred cows. Though much of this is amusing, the atmosphere eventually becomes both esoteric and hermetic.

Despite intimations of mordancy, the first act remains a comedy dealing with men who are possessed by the passion of opera. As Stephen says, "I hate chamber music. Nobody dies in chamber music." In the second act, we realize that Stephen is not simply the ultimate fan, but someone who has been trapped within opera. He aspires to heightened emotions, and, inevitably, he is unable to differentiate between the stage and the world of real relationships.

Returning to the home he shares with a literary critic, he is carried away by a fit of jealousy. Though the two men have lived in a kind of open marriage, Stephen is incensed at what he considers to be a personal betrayal. In one of the evening's most scathing encounters, he plays the prima donna and dismisses his lover's new young friend as a supernumerary in the opera of his life. The relationship of the two writers dissolves in an aria of violence.

Though the play is presented in a small showcase production, the performance quality, under the direction of John Tillinger, is as high as it could be in any circumstances, on or Off Broadway. In a role that could lead a lesser actor into paths of campiness, Mr. Hendrickson refuses to overplay his hand. His empathetic performance goes a great distance in making us understand a self-destructive character.

The three other actors are equally fine - Stephen Schnetzer as the critic, Steven Culp as the rival and Mr. Allen in the most flamboyant role as the opera-loving friend. Together, Mr. Hendrickson and Mr. Allen make a comic asset of compulsiveness. Philipp Jung's scenery smoothly changes from an ornately decorated lair, which might itself serve as a setting for opera, to a cool, hi-tech urban apartment. With a frankness that may offend some theatergoers, "The Lisbon Traviata" is a defiant attempt to confront demons. Grand Obsession.

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