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A CurtainUp Los Angeles Review
The Lisbon Traviata
By Laura Hitchcock

Not the famous six, but three degrees of separation, lie behind this review. Among the candidates in California's gubernatorial recall election was Ariana Huffington who, as Ariana Stassinopolous, wrote a biography of Maria Callas which has been on my shelf for years. Wanting to sample the candidate's style, I finally opened this biography which proved to be a well-written fascinating read. Trailing clouds of Callas while perusing opening nights, I came across a production of Terrence McNally's 1985 play The Lisbon Traviata by 23 Golden Zephyr Productions.

A major opera buff, McNally infuses this play with opera's tragedy, passion and delight. It's a story of romantic obsession and a frank fixation on opera, specifically La Divina, Maria Callas, who was the glory of her generation and the subject of another McNally play "The Master Class, which won him a Tony in 1996.

Act I takes place in the apartment of Mendy, a divorced father who has come out as a gay man and is roaringly over-the-top. His living room is littered with papers and records which he's playing for his friend, Stephen, a book editor and fellow opera aficionado. Stephen isn't here just to listen to music. He's vacated the apartment he shares with his lover of eight years, a hunky doctor named Mike, so Mike can celebrate his three-month anniversary with his new lover, a graduate student named Paul.

Stephen initially is almost inaudibly cool, as he parries Mendy's obsessive desire to hear a pirated version of Callas's Lisbon performance of La Traviata, which Stephen just acquired and left at home. "I'm too much for most people," Mendy forlornly concedes. Stephen's control breaks when Mendy tries to interrupt his phone conversation with a boy he hopes to spend the night with. His on-the-edge state surfaces when he screams, "If you don't shut up, I'm going to break your face open!" Mendy shuts up but the boy breaks the date anyway and Stephen spends a dreary night on Mendy's couch.

Mendy was in love with Stephen long ago but Stephen met Mike and that was that. Although Stephen fell in love at first sight with heroic Dr. Mike, he might have been happier with the more compatible Mendy, giggling and quibbling about opera.

It's obvious in Act II that Mike and Stephen had no mutual passions but each other, and for Mike, that's faded in the cold light of Stephen's intellectual distance and the warm smile of eager young Paul. Stephen's apartment says a lot about him, with its carefully alphabetized CDs and its stark cool modern d├ęcor.

Stephen deliberately gets home early in the morning and enjoys embarrassing a naked Paul who comes into what he thinks is an empty room. Without the giggle and fizz of Mendy's jollity, Act II's conflicts and coldness heat up into a destructive passion. It's over long but very operatic

This play is all in the timing and the group is lucky to have Michael Van Duzer as its director. He also skillfully calibrates the emotions of his cast.

In the pivotal role of Stephen, Gregory D. Giles begins so under the radar he is almost inaudible but works up in the end to a mad scene worthy of a play dedicated to La Divina. His early innocuousness is crucial to a deeper understanding of Mike's withdrawal. When he turns to Stephen in a moment fraught with emotional distress, a pending confrontation with his ex-wife, Stephen murmurs absently, "You'll do the right thing," turns a page of his book and doesn't turn off his Callas record.

David Goldyn keeps Mendy under his thumb, no mean feat for a character who is funny, warm and infuriating. It's an admirably deft characterization.

Tony Maietta as Mike and Jason Dottley as Paul make a couple just as well-suited as Mike and Stephen are mismatched. Dottley brings a gawky student quality to Paul and Maietta plays Mike with the authority and practicality of a professional man who listens to Sondheim but for whom Maria is Muzak.

Ben Pablo designed the sound, projecting the necessary clarity to the records that inspired this funny tragic passionate homage.

Playwright: Terrence McNally
Director: Michael VanDuzer
Cast: Gregory G. Giles (Stephen), David Goldyn (Mendy), Tony Maietta (Mike), Jason Dottley (Paul).
Sound Design: Ben Pablo
Running Time: Two and a quarter hours, with one fifteen-minute intermission
Running Dates: October 18-November 23.
Where: The Actors Lab, 1514 N. Gardner, Hollywood. Ph: (323) 769-6261.
Reviewed by Laura Hitchcock on November 1.
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