Terrence McNally is known to be an avid opera buff, and presumably he has nothing against Michelangelo. So it’s a pity he hasn’t written a more affectionate tribute to the works of art at the center of these two one-act plays, presented by Primary Stages as the first production in the company’s new theater.
In fact, McNally’s treatment of Richard Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde” and Michelangelo’s magnificent “David” is dismayingly crass — in their brevity and coarseness, the plays could almost be compared to a slash of graffiti scrawled across an Old Master painting. Leonard Foglia’s mediocre production, notable only as the New York stage debut of film actress Isabella Rossellini, is perhaps partly to blame.
The first play, alluringly if deceptively titled “Full Frontal Nudity,” takes place in the airy hall in Florence’s Accademia where “David” is on display. Its presence at the center of the stage is suggested by a series of slides projected on the face of a grand circular window at the back of Michael McGarty’s set. Collected around the base of the statue are a tour guide (Rossellini) and a trio of her charges, carefully assorted in their attitudes to the sculpture.
Hector (Michael Countryman) is the only one prepared to be properly awed. A professor of sorts, he’s disgusted to find himself contemplating one of the supreme achievements in Western art in the company of a pair of philistines. These are his fellow Americans Lana (Jennifer Mudge), a young woman more concerned about lunch than art, and Leo (Yul Vazquez), a goombah type who sneers at Hector’s learned observations and is primarily interested in getting Lana into bed.
The joke that recurs throughout both plays is the outrageous discordance between the expected and approved behaviors in the presence of Great Works of Art and the sorry responses that human beings often come up with. As the play opens, the tour guide says, “I don’t think I have to say anything? Words would only diminish the experience. … Are you astonished? Are you even breathing still? Listen to your heart, not me.” We next hear Leo’s thoughts, as he lasciviously eyes Lana: “I bet I can fuck her. I’m sure I can fuck her. Look at her: She wants me to fuck her.”
As even the tour guide is drawn into discussion of such absurd issues as the infamous Johnny Stompanato murder (the guide mistakenly refers to Lana as Ms. Turner), or Lana’s humorous slang for defecation, prissy Hector huffs and fumes and spits out insulting retorts, or thinks them, anyway (it’s not always easy to distinguish the characters’ thoughts from their dialogue).
The characters are drawn in broad, even vulgar strokes, and their fluctuations between animosity and sympathy are mechanical; the revelation that Hector has just lost his wife and child in a car accident seems a clunky way of cueing the characters’ more earnest ruminations on the transience of human happiness, or the solace that art can provide. All too often these are as glib and secondhand as the jokes (“If we really let a work of art in, if we embrace it totally, it should overwhelm us”).
And they are hardly improved by the flat, unnuanced performances at hand. Rossellini, looking almost as ravishing as the David itself, at least has the excuse of her inexperience.
The acting, at least, improves a bit in the evening’s second offering, which stars Richard Thomas in a fervent, funny turn as a celebrated conductor preening at the podium through the pieces of music that give the play its title: the “Prelude and Liebestod” from “Tristan.” The joke here, a variation on the central one in the first play, is the vulgar and egocentric preoccupations that get in the way of the conductor’s immersion in the music he rapturously refers to as one of mankind’s greatest achievements.
He begins at the heights — “Fill, lungs. Heave, bosom. Burst, my heart!” — but has soon descended to less sublime reflections: Gloating over his success (“There’s no one more popular than me, is there?”); imagining a sexual tryst with the cute male admirer in the box on the left; crudely sniping at his beard of a wife (“The fucking bitch is reading and you’re conducting your fucking ass off”); or insulting his concert master (“What are you looking at, dog face? Didn’t you see me give you that cue?”).
This interior monologue is intermittently funny, as are some of the overheard reflections from wife (Rossellini), would-be lover (Vazquez) and the diva on hand to sing the “Liebestod” (Mudge). But there are not enough laughs to make palatable the endless stream of self-infatuated musings that constitutes the lion’s share of the play. We are entirely sick of this character long before the end of the prelude, let alone the “Liebestod” — and the heart sinks when the conductor announces the first reading wasn’t magnificent enough and insists on a second run-through.
The play’s sour — and shopworn — climax finds the conductor reflecting that, despite his intense devotion to his art, the only time he has been truly happy was during a bizarre sexual tryst he experienced at age 22. A flagrantly operatic ending, recalling the more outrageous version of McNally’s “Lisbon Traviata,” is bizarrely handled by Foglia, who seems to present it and promptly rescind it.
McNally’s themes — the profound distance between the heights that man can achieve and the depths in which he invariably dwells; the painful ecstasy that art, in its superhuman perfection, can inspire — are obviously worthy ones. But their treatment is sadly superficial. Most dispiriting is the besmirching of Wagner’s sublime music, which underscores the performance of the second play. With fans like McNally, Wagner doesn’t need enemies.