John Glover and Malcolm Gets in The Lisbon Traviata
(© Carol Rosegg)
John Glover and Malcolm Gets in The Lisbon Traviata
(© Carol Rosegg)
In the wrong hands, Terrence McNally's tricky if remarkably accomplished 1985 play, The Lisbon Traviata, can be a disaster; its two lead characters can come off as tiresome, annoying cliches and its sharp turn from melancholy if hilarious comedy in the first act to quasioperatic tragedy in the second can make you feel like you're being hurled off a cliff.

Luckily, the Kennedy Center's sharp new production is in the extremely sure grasp of director Christopher Ashley and actors John Glover and Malcolm Gets, both of whom give first-rate performances. The result is worth a visit to DC -- where the show is being presented alongside McNally's Master Class and Golden Age -- and hopefully, a quick transfer to New York is in the offing.

The show pivots on the two central relationships of book editor Stephen (Gets), an aging former pretty boy in crisis. In Act I, he's holed up in the record-filed apartment of pal Mendy (Glover) -- sumptuously designed by Derek McLane -- for an evening of listening to opera. Mendy -- older, divorced, neurotic, temperamental, quick-witted -- is clearly a bit of a handful, and he and Stephen's seemingly tenuous friendship is cemented by their shared devotion to the late soprano, Maria Callas, and augmented by Mendy's unrequited love for Stephen.

What we witness is a battle of self-obsession; Mendy is completely focused on getting to hear -- as soon as possible, damn the costs -- Stephen's recently purchased copy of a rare recording of La Traviata that Callas sang in Portugal in 1958; while Stephen is just seeking distraction. His partner of eight years, Mike (the fine Manu Narayan), is spending the evening with another man, Paul (Chris Hartl, who does quite well balancing the character's innocence and smarts). Meanwhile, Stephen is hoping to hook up with a much younger writer/waiter, but is fully expecting to be blown off.

As is intended, Mendy's antics dominate this act, and Glover is simply magnificent: the jokes are perfectly timed, the looks are priceless, and the harangues are just this side of insufferable (His phone conversation with Paul -- a bit done to perfection by the role's originator, Nathan Lane -- is worthy of its own ovation.) But, in between the many many jokes about opera singers, Glover fully captures Mendy's essential loneliness; he's a man longing for emotional and sexual companionship with one too many strikes against him -- including the sword of potentially catching AIDS from a random encounter over his head.

Gets is almost too-understated here, but he deftly sows the seeds for Stephen's unraveling in Act II. In an act of self-destructiveness, he purposefully returns earlier than announced to the apartment he shares with Mike (another spot-on set by McLane), and gets perhaps more than he bargains for when Paul emerges fully naked from the bedroom. (Hartl's body simply redefines the word buff.)

Forced to face the truth about his future -- in every sense -- Stephen becomes an opera heroine. He's alternately scheming, victimized, pleading, controlling -- and Gets proves up to the challenge of navigating the character's quicksilver changes in personality with aplomb. The desperation is palpable, and even heartwrenching, even as Stephen's tactics are sometimes reprehensible, Narayan captures Mike's sense of being at the end of his proverbial rope, but his hard-edged portrayal takes away a bit of the sympathy we might feel for Mike.

As for Glover, he makes only a quick if much-welcome appearance in the second act (not counting a couple of answering machine messages). Still, one is so caught up in the domestic drama -- and waiting for its almost inevitable denoument -- that you can almost forget he was ever part of this unforgettable Traviata.