Tuesday, March 11, 2008


From: Miami Herald,

Date: August 11, 1992

Author: Christine Dolan

The voice that binds them, a sound they consider divinity in female form, is the impassioned soprano of the late Maria Callas. The flamboyant Mendy (John Felix) and tormented Stephen (Chaz Mena) are gay men with little else in common, but their devotion to Callas -- as well as an encyclopedic knowledge of opera and a gift for the bitchy remark -- have led to a friendship that sustains them both.

Dining and dishing on a stormy night full of hilarious digs, a night underscored by loneliness and worry, Mendy and Stephen seek escape. And in Terrence McNally's The Lisbon Traviata, now being given a terrific production at Miami Beach's intimate Area Stage, the men sweep us right along on their bumpy, rollicking ride.

McNally, the author of such plays as Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune and Lips Together, Teeth Apart, wrote The Lisbon Traviata in 1985, and revised it -- for the better, critics said -- in 1989. It remains a schizophrenic work, with a funny first act and a pathos-filled second; if this were opera, it would be a double bill of opera bouffe and tragic grand opera.

The linking character is Stephen, a witty editor whose soaring career at Knopf has lately gone into a tailspin because of his disintegrating relationship with Mike (Carlos Orizondo), a once-married doctor who has been Stephen's lover for eight

years. Because of their agreement about an "open" relationship -- an arrangement Stephen actually loathes -- Stephen has been cast out for the night so that Mike can romance Paul (Richard Jason Ascher), a social work grad student at Columbia.

Edgy and annoyed, Stephen is engaging in the mental equivalent of thumb-twiddling over dinner and the Diva at Mendy's opulently baroque apartment, awaiting a call for a late date of his own. The men engage in a game of operatic one- upsmanship, testing each other's knowledge of productions, dates, conductors and singers. Then Stephen "gets" Mendy by revealing a pirated recording of Callas singing La Traviata in Lisbon (hence, the title), a recording Stephen possesses, a recording Mendy decides he must have this very minute.

This first act is more typical McNally, which means it is sometimes riotously funny. Stephen, reminiscing about Mike, comments, "There's something beyond masculinity." To which Mendy replies, "I know. Me." And though McNally's opera references are extensive, you needn't know much about the art form to appreciate, say, the labeling of Joan Sutherland as "the Beast
from Down Under."

Act Two switches to Stephen and Mike's minimalist modern flat on what is literally a sad and sober morning after. Stephen comes home early to find the living room strewn with the remnants of pizza and passion. A nude Paul emerges from the bedroom to collect his clothes, then makes a surprised retreat. Later, Stephen smilingly torments his young rival, "sharing" graphic Polaroids of himself and Mike in the early days, when passion consumed them. Exit Paul and, after a confrontation that is painful both physically and emotionally, Mike.

Area Stage's production, directed with sensitivity and an engaging theatricality by John Rodaz, is a wonderful example of how imagination and talent can more than compensate for a limited budget. For instance: The transformation of the tiny stage from Mendy's extravagant digs, framed by Lazaro Amaral's paintings of bawdy "angels," to Stephen's stark space is breathtaking.

Mena, one of South Florida's best actors, displays his depth and range in The Lisbon Traviata, infusing his performance with rich physical detail and making Stephen's emotional immolation deeply affecting. Felix demonstrates his versatility by gleefully digging into every one of Mendy's campy lines. Ascher is quite good and understated as a "victim" who can more than hold his own against Stephen. Only Orizondo, at this point, falls short; playing Mike more like a street kid than a youthful doctor, he focuses so relentlessly on the character's problem that he seems dour and humorless.

Perfection in anything is rare -- even Callas, Stephen and Mendy would reluctantly admit, could "flat" a note. But Area Stage's lively, turbulent production of The Lisbon Traviata is just about as good as it gets in South Florida's burgeoning small theater scene -- which is very good indeed.

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