Bailiwick Repertory

Being rejected by a lover is painful for anyone. But for a middle-aged male homosexual living in the age of AIDS, rejection is more than humiliation and hurt–it carries the threat of lifelong loneliness and celibacy, alleviated only by extremely risky sexual encounters. This threat is chilling, and the emotions it triggers are positively operatic in intensity.

Which is why opera is such an effective metaphor for the unsuccessful love affairs that Terrence McNally presents in his terribly sad, terribly funny play The Lisbon Traviata. The title refers to a recording of La Traviata sung by Maria Callas on March 27, 1958, in Lisbon. The singer, who died in 1977 at the age of 54, is a virtual goddess to Mendy and Stephen, two opera buffs who never quite succeeded at becoming lovers. Now they’re entering middle age, and they’re just friends.

The play opens in Mendy’s apartment, where Stephen has come to listen to some new opera recordings. Stephen’s familiarity with opera is awesome. After listening to a few bars of a recording, he can identify not just the opera and the singers, but also the date and location of the performance as well as the conductor. With his perfect pitch, he can also recognize when a singer takes a B flat instead of a C in a particular passage.

Mendy, despite his passion for opera, is not quite as knowledgeable, so when Stephen mentions a recording he just purchased of the Lisbon Traviata, Mendy decides he must hear it and begs Stephen to go back to his apartment and fetch it. Ordinarily Stephen would do him the favor with pleasure, but this time he refuses. It seems that Michael, the doctor Stephen has been living with for several years, has a cute young graduate student visiting him, and Stephen doesn’t want to interfere. After all, he and Michael have an agreement that permits such sexual adventures, so there’s no need for jealousy. Besides, Stephen has plans to meet someone later and hopes to spend the night with him.

But rejection looms. Stephen fears being rejected by his date and by Michael. Mendy already has been rejected by Stephen–and countless others–and now attaches all his passion to opera. “At least opera doesn’t reject me,” he says.

By the time Stephen returns to his apartment the next morning, his fear has turned to panic. When the young graduate student emerges naked from the bedroom, Stephen’s worst fears are confirmed. Stephen and Michael have a painful, ugly confrontation as Stephen’s panic builds to a horrible crescendo.

All this may sound maudlin and overwrought, but McNally keeps the pathos at bay with plenty of humor. Harry Althaus, in his utterly relaxed performance as Mendy, finds every laugh line, but he also makes Mendy a complex and believable character whose loneliness, normally well concealed, bursts forth in flashes of self-pity. “Right now, at this particular moment in my not-so-terrific life, it’s probably the most goddamn important thing in the world to me,” he screams into the phone at Michael, who refuses to interrupt his date with Paul to bring the Lisbon Traviata over. “But I wouldn’t expect an insensitive faggot . . . like yourself to understand what I’m talking about.”

As Stephen, Christopher Cartmill brilliantly plays off Althaus’s comic talents, throwing right back at him the abrasive comments only real friends can get away with. Then in the second act he allows the pathetic desperation that has been lurking all along in Stephen to heat up slowly and then suddenly boil over.

The supporting actors give performances that are effective but not nearly as strong. John Hines plays Paul, the graduate student, as smiling and agreeable, but reveals almost nothing of what must be going on beneath the surface of the character, other than a slight nervousness when Stephen starts acting weird. Richard Sherman’s performance as Michael remains flat and muted throughout, making him hard to accept as the dashing object of Stephen’s passions.

Still, Bailiwick Repertory’s production, under the astute direction of Judy O’Malley, brings out the powerful emotions McNally embedded in his script. Richard and Jacqueline Penrod reveal a lot about the characters through the two sets, which show Mendy’s lushly draped apartment in the first act and Stephen’s sleek, record-lined apartment in the second. And Joe Dempsey contributes some wonderfully tense but subtle fight choreography, which brings The Lisbon Traviata to its inevitably unhappy end.