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Getting to the Heart of ‘Lisbon Traviata’

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

At the intermission of a recent preview of Terrence McNally’s “The Lisbon Traviata,” patrons at the Mark Taper Forum weren’t merely socializing. They were feverishly talking about the play and the campy performance by Nathan Lane, who leaves the crowd--momentarily anyway--in a high mood.

“Wait till you see what happens in the second act,” said one patron. “I was so shaken the first time, I’m back for the second time in three nights.”

At the curtain, after the play’s devastating about-face and the torment portrayed by co-star Richard Thomas, a male theatergoer turned to his female companion and said, “I hated the play.” “Well, I loved it,” the woman retorted.

The paradoxical drama, opening Thursday, is a wicked aria about four contemporary gay men, anchored by a character’s fanatical devotion to a 1958 recording of Maria Callas singing “La Traviata” in Lisbon. But it’s not a gay play. Basically, McNally has dramatized the dark underside of the glowy (heterosexual) love affair in his last drama staged at the Taper in 1988, “Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune.”

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“The fact that the men are gay is a given,” said Lane, who won a Drama Desk Award for his creation of the flamboyant, obsessed opera lover Mendy in the original production last year at the Manhattan Theatre Club. “The play is not a treatise about gays. It goes way beyond that. It’s about anybody living in these times.”

Thomas took over the role of the betrayed and fixated Stephen when the off-Broadway production moved to the Marines Memorial Theatre in San Francisco, where Thomas and Lane just completed seven weeks in the show. Lane said the production didn’t get close to making it to Broadway “because Broadway was frightened of it.”

Thomas caught the play twice in New York “and I knew it was a play I had to do. My character is into denial, obsession, he’s afraid of middle-age and losing his lover to a young man--which is exactly what happens. He wants to hang on to his relationship, at whatever humiliating cost. I can identify with every one of this character’s emotions: his rage, horniness, jealousy.”

In a twist by McNally, co-stars Lane and Thomas aren’t the lovers in the play. They’re friends and soul mates who live vicariously through art and music.

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Lane, who was the older brother in Neil Simon’s “Broadway Bound” at the Ahmanson in 1987 and played the odious nerd of a critic in Simon Gray’s “Common Pursuit” at the Matrix in ’86, is jovial, bearded and chunky in person, not unlike his persona in “The Lisbon Traviata” if you exclude the character’s tantrums and histrionics.

At 34, he is single, soft-spoken, slyly amusing and as rumpled and comforting as an old shoe. He said he prepped for his role by “listening to a lot of Maria Callas records and reading a lot about Italian opera.”

He had never played a gay character before and says the romantic and “rich, complicated Mendy was a career-changing role for me, a great part.”

Thomas, 39, has played gay characters before, in Lanford Wilson’s “Fifth of July” and McNally’s “Andre’s Mother,” which was adapted for PBS’ “American Playhouse” and broadcast last March. But neither of those roles came close to his character’s humiliating sexual agony in this play.

Thomas lives in the same rambling Los Feliz hillside home he has shared with his wife Alma since he co-starred as the nimble-witted Dauphin in “Saint Joan” at the Taper in 1974. He and his wife have a son and three daughters, and Lane was their guest at Thanksgiving dinner.

Said Thomas, wiggling his fingers in the manner of quotation marks above his head: “I did not set out to give an impression of, ‘Oh, this is the way a gay person talks.’ McNally’s language is helpful because it helps you physicalize the part.”

“In my case,” added Lane, “it was the danger of becoming a stereotype. The flamboyance, you know. I played Mendy as an older theatrical man who falls in and out of love a lot but who underneath all his craziness and loneliness is really in control of his life, unlike Stephen.”

Lane explained that McNally, who first workshopped “The Lisbon Traviata” at the off-off Broadway Promenade Theater in 1985, mistakenly reacted to advice from New Yorker friends and softened the ending of “The Lisbon Traviata” during its off-Broadway run.

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“Mike Nichols and others told him the original hard ending was too much to handle, so McNally changed it. When we came to San Francisco, he re-introduced the original ending. That’s the one you see here.

“Also, back East,” Lane continued, “my character didn’t show up in the second act at all. McNally changed that too. It’s a much stronger play now.”

The director, John Tillinger (who directed “Entertaining Mr. Sloane” and “Loot” at the Taper) had directed Lane previously in “The Film Society,” and he brought the script to the actor.

And McNally, said Lane, “wrote a lot of changes for Richard” once Thomas came aboard.

“The play is geometry,” said Thomas. “Women have come up to me after the show and told me that they’re both of these men!”


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