The Lisbon Traviata, Circle Theatre. In Terrence McNally’s artfully self-aware 1985 tragedy, about an opera lover who brings a fifth-act catastrophe on himself, the final dialogue exactly parallels the death scene in Carmen. But little else in this tabloid tale is grand. It’s the late 80s; AIDS has made early death common. Stephen, a possessive ex-lover, and his frustrated admirer Mendy are stereotypical tragedy/opera queens–wealthy, bored aesthetes in an escapist subculture. Stacking the cards against Stephen, McNally creates two healthy homosexuals as contrasts: Stephen’s former flame Michael, a down-to-earth physician, and the cute waiter he’s in love with, Paul. Why should they worship Maria Callas when they have each other?

Set designer Robert A. Knuth cleverly creates totally different New York apartments, one per act, on Circle’s small stage. But except for Jeremy Zeman’s college-aged Paul, the actors in Todd Cornils’s staging are too young and, given McNally’s self-pitying characters, too attractive. Though no threat to the memory of Harry Althaus’s wicked Mendy in Bailiwick Repertory’s 1991 local debut of the play, Andy Rabensteine drives home this dishy diva’s sexual sublimation (he says that listening to the title recording is as good as two weeks of orgasms). Christian Anderson’s Michael–a sensible hunk who’s the answer to the prayers implicit in any personals ad–is effectively contrasted to Michael Matthews’s hysterical, controlling Stephen. Drunk on his own elixir of hate and jealousy, this brittle narcissist confuses Liebestod with self-pity.