There are a number of things Terrence McNally’s “The Lisbon Traviata” does well, but one of its chief pleasures is the way it depicts art as a meaningful — even essential — component of everyday life.
Two of the show’s characters are vociferous opera lovers, and their enthusiasm for the art form isn’t merely an offhand character detail; it’s the framework through which they view their lives.
In its second production, the new fringe stage company Theatre22 gives McNally’s work an exuberant staging, with affirmations of art’s vitality reverberating throughout. When the play’s discussions about opera in Act 1 escalate into actual opera in the second act, director Gerald Browning doesn’t quite push the production into the heightened dramatic territory it requires, but the irresistible first act nearly makes up for it.
Set in 1985 in a pair of West Village apartments, the play opens with Stephen (Daniel Christensen) and Mendy (Eric Mulholland) quibbling over which opera album to play, eventually settling on the Lisbon performance of Verdi’s “La Traviata” that starred the famed diva Maria Callas.
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One problem — Mendy doesn’t have the disc. And Stephen left his at the apartment he shares with boyfriend Mike (Sean P. O’Bannon). His relationship with Mike is in the throes of disintegration despite Stephen’s denial.
Almost lovers once upon a time, Stephen and Mendy are one of the stage’s great odd couples. Stephen’s fussy intellectual seriousness and Mendy’s boisterous joie de vivre are seemingly at odds, despite their mutual passion for opera and Callas — the latter being probably the only reason they’re still friends, Stephen notes wryly.
McNally’s highly verbal first act, peppered with a bevy of cultural allusions both familiar and arcane, is performed with intelligence and precision by Christensen and Mulholland, neither of whom allow their characters to become one-note despite the primacy of their opera obsessions.
Act 2 features Stephen returning home to confront Mike and his new, younger romantic interest Paul (Kyle James Traver). Christensen amps up the terse anger nicely, but the jealous clash is muted due to O’Bannon’s solemn, presentational performance, which is far too stiff to serve as a convincing counterpart to the wild-eyed desperation mounting in his partner.
More compatible performances would likely have helped Browning pull off the tricky tonal shift of Act 2 as well as he did the verbal gymnastics of the first act, but this accomplished, attractive production is a harbinger of good things to come from the fledgling Theatre22.
Dusty Somers: firstname.lastname@example.org