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LA Theater Review

The Lisbon Traviata

Capitalizing on the drama found within the world's great operas, playwright Terrence McNally's microscopic examination of a failed relationship smartly rides the art form's peaks and valleys. Director Richard Van Slyke and his talented quartet of men effectively focus on the character-driven intensity that insulates the piece, for the most part, from feeling dated (it premiered in 1985) despite an obviously inserted yet chronologically impossible slap at George Bush.

Act I lays the groundwork as Stephen, a New York publishing house editor, and his verbal sparring partner, Mendy, joust over the recorded performances—most notably that referred to in the play's title—of their beloved diva, Maria Callas. Somewhere along the way these two, played respectively by Beau Puckett and Steven Pesola, proffer exposition detailing the pending and far-from-amicable parting of Stephen and his lover, Mike. The dialogue in this act certainly starts the mercury inching up the cattiness meter, but Pesola rushes through some of his best material, thereby robbing those lines of weight and humor.

Though this setup may not be as sharply defined as one might wish, all is forgiven in the second act. Arriving home early the next morning thinking there's something left to salvage, Stephen is confronted with Mike's new interest, Paul, played with appropriate discomfort by Jasen Salvatore. From this point forward, the show catapults forward as we witness a riveting struggle between one man's quest for emotional freedom and his partner's fear of loss and loneliness. Puckett and Donald Robert Stewart, as Mike, are completely believable lovers whose time came to a pathetic end long ago. Stewart palpably captures the disillusionment and heart-wrenching realization this irreparable damage has wrought. Meanwhile, Puckett's refusal to admit the truth results in an ugly desperation that teeters on the edge of insanity.

Aiding the moving portrayals and direction are Joseph Stachura's highly efficient lighting and Joe Whyte's sound design, consisting of countless musical cues ably administered by Marietta Putignano. Finally, McNally having penned two diametrically different endings to his play, the conclusion chosen for this production is gripping.

Presented by and at the Knightsbridge Theatre, 1944 Riverside Dr., L.A. Sat. 5 p.m., Sun. 3 p.m. Jul. 1-Aug. 5. (323) 667-0955.

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