Not long ago, Terrence McNally wrote a deceptively simple little heterosexual play about a short-order cook and a waitress whose one-night stand turns into a romantic encounter of the most unexpected kind.
It was called “Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune” (as in Debussy) and when it opened at the Manhattan Theatre Club in 1987 under John Tillinger’s direction, it became an unexpected hit.
Meanwhile, McNally had been toying with another, more complex play that dissected the failure of a homosexual affair and delivered “The Lisbon Traviata” (as in Giuseppe Verdi) in 1989.
If music be the food of love, rarely has it been better used to illustrate its dismantling.
This “Traviata” was also staged at the Manhattan Theatre Club by Tillinger, and it’s ostensibly this production that opened Thursday at the Mark Taper Forum-- except that it has a drastically different ending, and that Richard Thomas now plays the pivotal role originally performed by Anthony Heald.
The ending used at the Taper was the original one, changed once in New York and now changed back. It turns an ordinary melodrama into something like grand opera. Moreover, it is emblematic of the protagonist’s passionate obsession with the recordings and person of Maria Callas.
What McNally has wrought is far trickier than it seems. He has written a play in two parts--one comic, one tragic--tenuously linked by its sequence of events, but emotively supported by the flamboyance of its music.
Stephen (Thomas), a respected editor at a New York publishing house, is spending a quiet evening with his friend and fellow operatic nut Mendy (Nathan Lane). They were planning to listen to the latest pirated Callas recordings, but not for long.
Mendy, a rabid opera fan, is having a fit over at least three things: the fact that he didn’t know that Callas had sung a “Traviata” in Lisbon on March 27, 1958 (you want specific, these guys get specific), the fact that he therefore doesn’t own the just-issued recording of that performance and the fact that Stephen, calmly sitting through this crisis, does.
Small matters to most people, huge ones to Mendy who spends his evening frantically trying to get his hands on a Lisbon “Traviata.” He tries the stores, then tries to cajole Stephen into picking up his copy, and finally attempts to persuade Stephen’s roommate and lover Mike (Dan Butler) to let him stop by and pick it up. What begins to bleed through, like pentimento, is a map of domestic trouble.
Mike, it appears, is spending his evening with a new lover, Paul (Sean O’Bryan, replacing John Slattery who played it in New York). Stephen, it also appears, has sanctioned if not encouraged this extracurricular fling. He puts up a front of tolerance others might call denial. He has his own plans for the night and insists the relationship--a word he abhors--is only going through “a phase.” Not to worry and pass the Callas.
Act II, of course, brings on the inevitable. No mystery here. Mike, in love with Paul, wants out and Stephen can’t accept it. The final break-up scene is played out in Stephen and Mike’s apartment against an intricate backdrop of ever-mounting musical and emotional dysfunction and one intrusion--by Mendy, who shows up at the door, naturally at the worst possible moment.
This is another change from New York, where Mendy was heard (on the answering machine) but never seen in Act II. His reappearance here, like a singer in the wrong key, barely serves to glue the two acts together. Lane’s vaulting comic performance as the opera-crazed Mendy is essentially over with Act I and his return almost anticlimactic.
But it’s a minor quibble in a masterful play that tracks the crumbling of a long affair, crack by hair-line crack, using Stephen’s fanatical fascination with grand opera as another player in the drama. His rejection of reality behind this musical mask/shield/ refuge virtually dictates the ending.
In lesser hands than Thomas’ and McNally’s, the denouement could come perilously close to soap rather than grand opera, but plays are written for good, not bad, actors and Thomas is superb as a rational man caught in a web of feelings he can no longer control.
He is excellently supported by Butler’s rational Mike, a man who still loves Stephen, even if he is no longer in love with him. And by O’Bryan’s even-handed Paul: a good-looking, sincere young man who resists Stephen’s taunts with dignity while exercising his right to pursue happiness. (Warning: There is some frontal nudity and raw language, none gratuitous.)
As commonplace as such a story might be, it is endowed, like “Frankie and Johnny,” with grace and heartbreak. Where it surpasses the other play is in dimension. Opera may be the garnish here, the playwright’s brilliant counterpoint, but these are still only ordinary men inexorably trapped by fate.
In short, a classic tragedy.
At 135 N. Grand Ave., Tuesdays through Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 7:30 p.m., with matinees Saturdays and Sundays, 2:30 p.m. No performance Christmas Day. Matinee Dec. 27, 1:30 p.m. Ends Dec. 30. $24-$30; (213) 410-1062, (714) 634-1300, TDD (213) 680-4017.
‘THE LISBON TRAVIATA’
The Manhattan Theatre Club Production of a play by Terrence McNally presented by the Mark Taper Forum in association with Carole Shorenstein Hays. Director John Tillinger. Sets Philipp Jung. Lights Ken Billington. Costumes Jane Greenwood. Sound Gary and Timmy Harris, Jon Gottlieb. Fight staging Anthony DeLonghis. Production stage manager James T. McDermott. Stage manager Craig Palanker. Cast Richard Thomas, Nathan Lane, Dan Butler, Sean O’Bryan.