Terrence McNally’s travails on the British stage look unlikely to be eased entirely by London’s first “Lisbon Traviata.” The Off Broadway hit has taken 18 years, and a bewildering array of accents and mispronunciations, to make its steamy way to London. One uses the word “steamy” specifically in this case, to describe opening night at a packed King’s Head, the North London pub theater that doubles as a sauna. The luckiest person on the small if (in Lisa Lillywhite’s adroit set design) cunningly appointed stage was Tristan Gemmill, in a supporting role requiring him to wear nothing but underpants for most of the second act. A cramped and sweltering public had no such option.
Gemmill proves more than welcome for a second reason. He lends authenticity to a hard-working but rather wearing production from director Stephen Henry that is in noticeably short supply of it. While one never doubts the verve brought to every camp flourish of British thesp David Bamber, playing the Maria-Callas-obsessed Mendy (a part famously originated by Nathan Lane), Americans, at least, may feel done in by 2½ hours of sounds, stresses and names that are just, well, off. We keep hearing about a recording of “Travia-duh” and its central character, Violedduh. Is a T too much to ask?
The other aural missteps are too numerous to mention, though “Parsifal,” “La Rondine,” “Cosi” (“Cozy”?, anyone), the publishing house Knopf and the first name of opera diva Teresa Stratas are just a few of the countless proper nouns that might survive being mangled rather less if the characters mouthing them weren’t supposed to be such avid opera buffs. (Someone must have put co-star Marcus D’Amico right at the intermission about Montserrat Caballe; after fumbling with her surname in the first act, he was spot-on in the second.)
After a while you begin to feel as if the cast is annotating one of McNally’s livelier plays rather than inhabiting it, though Bamber, for one, must be having fun playing the opposite end of the gay-hysterical spectrum from Guy, the pent-up Englishman in “My Night With Reg,” for which he won an Olivier.
Mendy is the hand-wringing cyclone at the heart of “Lisbon Traviata,” or so you could be forgiven for thinking throughout the first act. Making his way breathlessly around his apartment, wrists flapping as he decrees, “I’m not in the mood for verismo,” when faced with the prospect of “Andrea Chenier,” Mendy cracks jokes while his heart just silently cracks. For there, sharing his obsessions, is the friend, D’Amico’s comparatively calmly spoken Stephen, whom Mendy would like to have sharing his bed. Small wonder this human pinwheel finds a soulmate of sorts in Callas: Not for nothing do we learn that “la divina” died age 54 in Paris, “her only companion: loneliness.”
The second act shifts the focus to the lonely Stephen, who is revealed to be husbanding furies of virtually operatic force that are brought out into the open once he is abandoned by Paul (Gemmill), a much-in-demand doctor and Stephen’s all-but-husband of eight years. Although Mendy makes a fur-attired stir during his second-act cameo, the act is given over to a more conventional settling of scores — until this play’s long-controversial ending, which D’Amico plays with a poignance enabling you to see every haunted chamber of Stephen’s aching soul.
Whether the ending adds up remains as debatable as ever, especially for those of us who may not feel that life follows a path laid out by opera. (This may be the only play ever written where Berg’s “Wozzeck” actually leads to blows.) Often accused of special pleading by Brits in the past, McNally here runs the risk of succumbing to blatant melodrama, especially since “The Lisbon Traviata” is not itself an opera but, at core, a very particular snapshot of Manhattan during the advent of the CD — and the full onslaught of AIDS.
The second act is where Stephen’s sense of betrayal and loss burst forth, but it is the first that will always win over auds. Who could resist a remark like, “Why settle for ‘The Sound of Music’ when you could have ‘Dialogue of the Carmelites’?” But one could just as well ask, why settle for imitative versions of McNally when one can continue to hope for the real thing? This production gives you the outlines of the play, which only those with long Off Broadway memories will be able to fill in.