Terrence McNally's Nights at the Opera: Golden Age, The Lisbon Traviata, and Master Class

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Photo Source: 'Master Class' by Joan Marcus
Terrence McNally is a national treasure, so it's entirely fitting that the Kennedy Center is feting him in our nation's capital with a festival featuring three plays that display his love of opera. It's a rare chance to see a great playwright's works in context, and that aspect of "Terrence McNally's Nights at the Opera" is a complete success. The plays enrich one other, allowing audiences to get more out of them than stand-alone viewings would provide. Seeing all three in the course of two days was an inspiring experience.

That's not to say all is flawless. "Golden Age," McNally's latest, set backstage during the 1835 premiere of Vincenzo Bellini's final opera, "I Puritani," is clearly a work in progress, confused both in tone and purpose but offering considerable potential. "Master Class" is an entertainingly solid production of this practically foolproof account of Maria Callas as teacher, but with one unfortunate miscalculation at its center. "The Lisbon Traviata," however, is a revelatory reclamation. The unquestioned festival highlight, it restores McNally's original bleak ending, which was thrown overboard when Manhattan Theatre Club's 1989 presentation transferred commercially Off-Broadway. The softening was to little avail, as the show ran a disappointing three months. Now director Christopher Ashley's beautifully balanced production moves the play into McNally's top tier.

I had to catch the plays on the only weekend all three were open to the press for review, which means "Golden Age" has already closed. My hunch is we'll get another chance to see it, when, hopefully, the two-hour-and-forty-minute work has been further pruned and focused. Director Walter Bobbie (who replaced Austin Pendleton, director of this production's premiere engagement, at Philadelphia Theatre Company) has called it a "kind of 'Noises Off' at the opera," suggesting that the intention is a high-energy farce. If so, right now this tale of a composer agonizing backstage while his self-absorbed, self-dramatizing cast goes about its opening-night business just isn't funny enough, despite the sterling efforts of Marc Kudisch, Hoon Lee, Christopher Michael McFarland, and Rebecca Brooksher as the famous Puritani Quartet. That's probably because McNally has made some of his characters too multidimensional, particularly Bellini and Maria Malibran, his prima diva, who is not in "I Puritani" but arrives backstage anyway, just to make rival soprano Giulia Grisi nuts. The fascinating relationship that Jeffrey Carlson and Amanda Mason Warren create as Bellini and Malibran isn't the stuff of farce, nor are McNally's interesting ruminations on the nature and purpose of art and the interconnectedness of creators across generations. There are also political themes mixed in, embodied by a young theater page and Bellini's patron and lover, Francesco Florimo, but they stubbornly refuse to blend. It will be instructive to see how McNally and Bobbie eventually sort it all out.

If you've never seen "Master Class," then you're likely to have a thoroughly delightful time at director Stephen Wadsworth's current staging. Tyne Daly is one of our finest actors, and her work here is authoritative. She can land her laughs and reveal character complexities simultaneously and with equal flair. But if you were fortunate enough to see the role's Tony-winning creator, Zoe Caldwell, or any one of her fine successors—Patti LuPone and Dixie Carter on Broadway, Faye Dunaway on tour—in director Leonard Foglia's definitive production, you'll sense something is askew. Daly and Wadsworth seem to have decided that Callas wasn't quite the grand diva that McNally's play depicts, eschewing outer flamboyance in favor of the inner woman. There are things to be gained with this approach, particularly a striking sense of Callas' emotional fragility. But Daly's more measured attack softens Callas' vulgarity and sacrifices some of the humor. What's more, surprisingly, it gets in the way of the two sequences in Callas' head, in which she re-enacts moments in her past, including altercations with her lover, Aristotle Onassis. Daly's naturalism undermines Callas' scabrous portrait of the man who betrayed her; indeed, it's not always immediately apparent whether it's Callas or Onassis who's speaking. For all I know, Daly's Callas may be more truthful than McNally's, but it's at odds with his play, which fortunately is more than strong enough to accommodate the interpretation. Oh, and a quick shout out for Alexandra Silber's terrific First Soprano—funny, quirky, finely observed. She's the best I've seen in the role.

Like Nathan Lane before him, John Glover, in "The Lisbon Traviata," is tearing the house down with his wildly funny turn as Mendy, the Callas-obsessed queen panting to hear a live bootleg recording of her performance of "La Traviata" in Lisbon. The brilliant Glover makes the outrageous Mendy completely his own while never neglecting the lonely, needy man underneath. But Malcolm Gets has the harder job as Mendy's friend Stephen, the controlling, appearances-fixated literary editor whose carefully arranged life is unraveling despite his best efforts. Gets is a wonder at making this most unsympathetic of characters into a troubled man we can understand and care about. Both Stephen and Mendy use their Callas worship and mastery of operatic minutiae as a way to avoid the emptiness in their souls. As they trade repartee, gossip, and camp it up in Mendy's apartment in Act 1, we are mightily diverted even as we sense the darkness underneath. Then the barbs come home to roost in Act 2, as Stephen returns home deliberately early to "accidentally" meet the young man with whom his lover of eight years, Mike, is conducting an affair. It turns out Mike and Stephen's open relationship isn't quite so open, with devastating consequences. Manu Narayan is an alluring Mike, enraptured with Paul, a piece of hard eye candy given an attractively open innocence by Chris Hartl. The intense Narayan makes it clear both why Stephen can't bear to lose him and why Mike must go. Director Ashley's carefully modulated direction makes the intentionally less funny Act 2 a match for Act 1 through its involving drama. It's now the perfect, inevitable bookend, and "The Lisbon Traviata" coheres as never before.

For Mendy and Stephen, it's easier to make life into opera than to deal with it. In these three plays, McNally makes opera into life, and we are considerably the richer for it. One more thing: You don't need to know beans about opera to enjoy them.

Presented by and at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, 2700 F Street, NW, Washington, D.C. "Golden Age": March 12–April 4. "The Lisbon Traviata": March 20–April 11. Tue.–Sun., 7:30 p.m.; Sat. and Sun., 2 p.m. "Master Class": March 25–April 18. Tue.–Sun., 7:30 p.m.; Sat. and Sun., 1:30 p.m. (202) 467-4600, (800) 844-1324, or www.kennedy-center.org. Casting by Laura Stanczyk.