Terrence McNally's "The Lisbon Traviata" is about opera in more ways than one. Not only do its protagonist Stephen and his old friend Mendy obsess about Maria Callas--particularly a pirated recording of a "Traviata" performance in Portugal--but McNally also has structured the play like that opera.
The first act is high camp as Mendy, who describes himself as an "opera queen," runs through a catalog of operatic lore. The second act turns slowly but surely into opera-like tragedy.
In his staging at the Theatre District in Costa Mesa, director Mario Lescot detects the operatic quality in McNally's work and makes it sing out strongly, but Lescot has not taken advantage of McNally's structure. It's not an obscure dramatic ploy; rather, it has been used by many authors, including Noel Coward, in his first big success, "The Vortex."
Although the first act hints at the obvious disintegration of Stephen's relationship with Mike, Stephen's lover of eight years, the bulk of the act is high fun and can be hilarious.
Mike has a new love interest staying at his and Stephen's apartment, so Stephen spends the evening with friend Mendy. Mendy's insistence on retrieving the Lisbon "Traviata" recording from Stephen's flat is a running joke, among many opera-related yuks. For example, in an effort to divert Mendy's curiosity about Stephen's troubled relationship, Stephen says fans of Callas-rival Renata Tebaldi are a mean little group.
Lescot simply takes the first act too seriously. The heavy operatic tempos and meaningful pauses aim too early at the tragedy to follow. It is a very dark vision of what this moment should be, and in dramatic terms it leaves Lescot with nowhere new to go when the powerful climax hits.
Other than this major misjudgment, the Theatre District's revival is respectful. In the second act, Lescot finds the proper tone for Stephen's despair and Mike's mature reasons for ending their affair. The powerful, tragic moment at the final curtain hits the appropriate note, backed up with the recorded Callas at full volume.
Brian Kraft's Stephen is well-shaped, desperately unhappy in the first act and slowly allowing himself to become realistically distracted and dreamlike in Act 2.
As Mendy, familiar local actor David Rousseve gives one of his typically first-rate performances, but it is, unfortunately, without the flighty camp that gives Mendy his strength as an instrument in McNally's dramatic score.
Joe Massie's Paul, the young Columbia grad student with whom Mike is having an affair, is not as foxy as the character should be, but Massie creates a believable image of the cautious interloper.
The most solid performance is that of Christian Holiday as Mike, the divorced doctor who realized halfway through his relationship's eight years that it wasn't working; Holiday's deft use of subtext and his attention to detail and shading are the stuff of art.
* "The Lisbon Traviata," Theatre District, 2930 Bristol St., Suite C-106, Costa Mesa. 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 7 p.m. Sunday. $15-$20. Ends Dec. 5. (714) 435-4043. Running time: 2 hours, 50 minutes.
Brian Kraft: Stephen
David Rousseve: Mendy
Christian Holiday: Mike
Joe Massie: Paul
A Theatre District production of Terrence McNally's comedy-drama. Directed by Mario Lescot. Scenic design: Two Blue Chairs Inc. Lighting design: Extended Visions. Sound design: Bonnie Vise, David Podley. Stage manager: Lynette Deveraux.