Joe McCauley and JP Pierson Credit: Scott Dray

The Queer Encyclopedia of Music, Dance & Musical Theater (Cleis Press, 2004) defines “opera queen” as “a fan notable for his fetishistic, indeed perhaps obsessive, knowledge of opera plots, productions, and recordings, along with an equally extensive lore of gossip and speculation about the scandals, rivalries, romances, breakdowns, and triumphs in the personal lives of operatic divas.” Terrence McNally’s 1989 tragicomedy The Lisbon Traviata focuses on two such opera queens, Stephen and Mendy—affluent, white, middle-aged New York culture vultures, with apartments in Manhattan, homes in the country, and summer cottages on Fire Island. Mendy—manic and effeminate—lives alone, and is apparently celibate, though not by choice. The more reserved, more “normal”-seeming, but equally neurotic Stephen has a lover named Mike—though the eight-year relationship seems to be unraveling. On the rainy night in 1989 on which the play takes place, Stephen is spending the evening at Mendy’s listening to music, but his thoughts keep drifting anxiously back to Mike, who is having a date with a younger man, Paul. Stephen is trying to accept the idea of a nonmonogamous “agreement” as the solution to his and Mike’s problems, but fears that Paul might turn out to be more than just a casual trick.

Mendy and Stephen are bonded by their fascination with all things operatic, especially their shared devotion to the legendary soprano Maria Callas. Their campy conversation dishes many famous divas—Sutherland and Scotto, Freni and Farrell, butch Marilyn Horne and bubbly Beverly Sills—but keeps returning to Callas and “the Lisbon Traviata,” a rare pirated recording of a 1958 Callas performance of Verdi’s La Traviata in Portugal, which Stephen possesses and Mendy covets.

Mendy, sensing Stephen’s distress about Mike, tries to distract his friend by provoking a bit of playful roughhousing, pretending to stab Stephen to death in the manner of the murder scenes in Tosca and Carmen—for violent passion is as important as beautiful music in operatic tales of love and death. But eventually, inevitably, Stephen must return to his own home, to face Mike and Paul—and himself. McNally’s gift for crackling repartee is on full display in the bitchy banter of Mendy and Stephen’s gabfest—and in Stephen’s waspish second-act verbal duel with his rival. But the cutting one-liners aren’t just there to amuse; they’re carefully structured to gradually guide the action as it mounts to a shocking climax.

When I saw The Lisbon Traviata in its 1989 off-Broadway run, I was unconvinced by the extremes to which McNally takes the story. In part that was because of the larger-than-life performance of Nathan Lane as Mendy—a dazzling star turn that dominated the show and overshadowed the other actors in a way that I think did the play a disservice.

Eclipse Theatre’s excellent production, directed by Steve Scott, has a more balanced ensemble. JP Pierson is both howlingly funny and touching as the lonely but flamboyantly entertaining Mendy, the script’s showiest role. But the heart of the story is the conflict among Joe McCauley as Stephen, Joel Reitsma as Mike, and Luke Daigle as Paul. The actors illuminate, beat by beat, the different choices the men make to deal with the escalating situation—and how they are gradually changed by the very act of making those choices.

The Lisbon Traviata is very much a period piece today. Its characters inhabit a world of scratchy LPs and hi-fi stereos (what would Mendy say if he knew that in 2015 the Lisbon Traviata is on YouTube?). Gay men in committed relationships refer to themselves as “lovers” rather than today’s post-civil-union term “partners” even as they struggle with the behavioral changes mandated by AIDS at the end of the epidemic’s first decade. But McNally’s fundamental focus on emotional choices renders the play remarkably durable.  v