The Lisbon Traviata
by Terrence McNally
directed by lngrid Sonnichsen
at The New Repertory Theatre
through December 13
"Opera doesn't reject me. The real world does," laments one of the characters in Terrence McNally's The Lisbon Traviata. This rather pathetic but poignant observation marks the sadness at the core of this funny play, now in production at the The New Repertory Theatre.
The Lisbon Traviata focuses on the painful dissolution of the longtime relationship between middle-aged Stephen (Peter Bubriski) and Michael (Peter Husovsky). Michael has fallen in love with a grad student named Paul (Christopher Dawson), leaving Stephen lonely, frightened and jealous. Mendy (Michael O'Hara), their flamboyant (also lonely and frightened) friend, rounds out the cast.
Lengthy conversations unfold about their various relationships, opera and especially the soprano Maria Callas. The title refers to an elusive 1958 bootleg recording of Callas singing Verdi's La Traviata. Throughout the play, the characters invoke this hard-to-find record as a symbol of the unobtainable--true love, lasting happiness, freedom from anxiety in the age of AIDS.
With such a small cast, every performance is crucial--and, fortunately, well-done. O'Hara, as the chubby, kimono-clad, outrageously campy Mendy, is excellent. Although O'Hara takes a while to get comfortable in his flouncy gestures, his confident, funny performance is one of the show's best.
Bubriski, as Stephen, is equally impressive. During Stephen's long conversation with Mendy, which occupies the entire first act, Bubriski effectively renders his character as a witty but melancholic man on the verge of desperation. The exchange between the two is a true feat of endurance, and these actors pull if off admirably. Ingrid Sonnichsen's direction is also superb--the dialogue is taughtly paced throughout this act.
It is also funny. The character pick at each other endlessly, and argue over opera in unbelievably petty detail. They disparage various divas ("That Greek mezzo with the hair on her chest") and other opera buffs ("[Renata Tebaldi fans] are a mean little bunch") and occasionally show traces of real emotion. The two actors negotiate nicely their characters' swings between sarcasm and genuine despair.
In the long second act McNally moves his play into more maudlin, paranoid territory; the Callas arias get louder, the dialogue grows tense, and eventually Stephen's obsessive behavior culminates in a crime of passion lifted directly from Carmen.
This act is weaker than the first. Husovsky and Dawson perform their parts well if unremarkably, and Bubriski remains strong. The problem mostly lies in the transition from "opera buffa" to "verismo tragedy," as McNally has labelled it. That contrast contains the play's power, but it also puts a strain on its credibility. It is a difficult trick to plausibly turn a witty, realistic play about aging professionals' romantic entanglements into a violent and grand tragedy, no matter how many references to operatic emotion are strewn throughout. Despite the fine acting, the second act drags a little, and the slacking in tension makes the bloody ending seem histrionic and a little gratuitous.
Still, the bulk of the play remains entertaining, and at times moving. McNally's funny, barbed script is filled with moments of insight into his characters and their fears of living. The New Repertory Theatre's production has effectively illuminated these moments, creating a mostly convincing picture of difficult lives comforted by--and sometimes ruined by--opera.
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