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Richard Thomas in The Stendhal Syndrome
(Photo © James Leynse)
The Stendhal Syndrome, identified by the 19th-century French novelist and therefore named after him, refers to the condition experienced by people who feel faint when contemplating transcendent works of art. It's not to be confused with the Stockholm Syndrome, which refers to the phenomenon of captives falling in love with their captors. On second thought, perhaps the two overlap, since Stendhal Syndrome sufferers could be said to have fallen in helpless love with the art works that have captivated them.

This highly-charged state of mind and body is what Terrence McNally -- possibly as well known for his love of opera as he is for his plays -- looks at with appreciation and cynicism in a new pair of one-acts under the umbrella tag The Stendhal Syndrome. In the second of them, called "Prelude & Liebestod," a world-famous conductor (Richard Thomas) is on a podium conducting the Richard Wagner warhorse that lends its name to the title. Seated above him are, stage right, his wife (Isabella Rossellini) and, stage left, a seductive young fan (Yul Vásquez). Alongside him are a soprano (Jennifer Mudge) and the concert master (Michael Countryman).

As the conductor waves his way though Wagner not once but twice (he's dissatisfied with his first rendition), he and the others express their inner thoughts. None of what they think/say is particularly flattering of themselves or the others. But during the second go-round, as the conductor recalls a sexual encounter he had with two Florentines when he was 22, his reverie allows him to match the moments of ecstasy that Wagner so miraculously wove into his musical climaxes. The point is made that art achieves its ultimate expression when it entirely reflects life; at least, that's McNally's point, and the impetus behind these short plays.

In the course of delivering a digressive interior monologue that ends with a wild baton flourish, the wavy-haired maestro mentions Leonard Bernstein. McNally is playing an old literary trick here: With the reference, he's saying that the man being observed is not meant to be the celebrity himself while slyly insisting that, of course, we're supposed to be thinking Bernstein. As evidence, there are the many biographical details worked into the monologue. For example, the maestro (1) achieved fame at a young age when an older conductor was suddenly indisposed, (2) married but is leading an active and barely concealed homosexual life, (3) disdains Anton Bruckner.

It's a titillating ploy that may or may not be irrelevant to McNally's message. The conductor's musings and those of the other four characters on stage (the concert master does little more than call his leader an "asshole") aren't illuminating. Instead, they're the mundane iterations that might be expected of characters assumed to be hiding commonplace views behind forced smiles. It's only when the conductor begins to describe his sexcapade in vivid detail that the piece takes on pornographic allure; never mind that the maestro's recollections of being tied to a bed and so on seem so much figments of an overactive imagination that even he admits the incident may not have taken place. (The lip-licking Bernstein biographer Joan Peyser might have been happy to know about something like this binge -- or did she?)

Isabella Rossellini in
The Stendhal Syndrome
(Photo © James Leynse)
McNally wants us to give ourselves over to passion and thrall in order that we may live our lives fully. He's already demonstrated this in his curtain-raiser, "Full Frontal Nudity," wherein tour guide Bimbi (Isabella Rossellini) brings three Americans to Florence's Accademia Gallery for a good, long gander at Michelangelo's David. Again, the playwright lets the audience in on the characters' musings. Lana (Jennifer Mudge), who believes that the Renaissance genius used a model named David for his large-scale work, isn't thinking very much; Leo (Yul Vásquez), another practicing philistine, is thinking about coming on to Lana; Hector (Michael Countryman), a teacher who's recently lost his wife and son, is thinking that Leo and Lana are so shallow as to drive him mad in his grief. None of the three is thinking of putting the moves on Bimbi, which is nuts: Isabella Rossellini, making her New York stage debut, is a knockout. Instead, they interact haltingly and begin to show signs of the Stendhal Syndrome as Michelangelo's artistry works its silent wiles on them.

As McNally pays homage to the Stendhal Syndrome, one might ask whether or not the playwright creates the conditions for audience members to experience a little Sten-Syn themselves. The answer for this reviewer is yes, but it doesn't have much to do with McNally's writing, which ranges from humorous to passionate to pedestrian to sloppy. Nor does it have that much to do with Michael McGarty's classy and adaptable set design, featuring stately columns and a large, round, and mullioned upstage glass window. (Upon these, Elaine McCarthy projects slides of the imposing David and, later, the stunning dome of a concert hall.)

David C. Woolard's clothes are right, especially the gowns that Rossellini and Mudge wear in the second piece. Russell H. Champa lights the one-acts smartly, while David Van Tieghem provides original music and sound design with his usual flair. Nowhere in the program, however, is credit given for the Wagner recording that is heard -- and heard again -- in the second piece. Is it Bernstein's 1967 recording with Eileen Farrell as Isolde? (And say, how about two Wagner-obsessed plays showing up in one week, the other one being Paul Rudnick's Valhalla?)

The swoon-y Stendhal feeling isn't caused by Richard Thomas, who moves his arms about gracefully as he reaches an orgasm to the accompaniment of (pardon the expression) swelling melodies. He is, however, a strong and intelligent presence, even if he and the sensitive director Leonard Foglia might have found more conductors' mannerisms for Thomas to copy or spoof. Countryman, Mudge, and Vásquez do their doubling smoothly in disparate roles.

It's Isabella Rossellini who engenders the Stendhal Syndrome in this outing. Although she's now in her 50s, she's still model-beautiful and still demonstrates that she inherited swoon-inducing looks and talent from her mother, Ingrid Bergman. She's got the pert nose, the voluptuous mouth, the flashing eyes, the beguiling smile, the hearty laugh, the melting accent, the natural way of being. Like her mother, Rossellini is tall and ever-so-slightly awkward. As Bimbi, she often stands with her arms rigidly at her sides, all of her animation in her Lancome-perfect face. When, during "Prelude & Liebestod," she sits in her raised box and gives the audience her profile, she calls to mind an antique cameo displayed in a museum. Rossellini is so beautiful that this notice must end here to allow the reviewer to go and fetch the smelling salts.

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