Chicago Theater Review: THE LISBON TRAVIATA (Eclipse Theatre Company)

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by Lawrence Bommer on November 9, 2015

in Theater-Chicago


Life imitates opera: Concluding Eclipse Theatre Company’s season-long retrospective of oeuvres by Terrence McNally (Lips Together, Teeth Apart and A Perfect Ganesh), The Lisbon Traviata is an artfully self-aware domestic tragedy from 1989. It cruelly conflates culture and crime. Indeed McNally’s wicked work plays as if the author made a bet: “I can write a play about an opera queen who incites his own fifth-act catastrophe!” The final dialogue exactly parallels the death scene in Carmen (‘Frappe moi ou laissez moi passer!”).

Stephen (Joe McCauley) and Mike (Joel Reitsma) revisit their past in an old Polaroid in Eclipse Theatre's THE LISBON TRAVIATA. Photo by Scott Dray.

The title refers to a rare pirated 1958 recording of smoky soprano Maria Callas in Portugal, a vintage legacy that opera queens would kill for. It also represents the ideal from which everything on this stage inevitably descends. Little is grand though much is operatic in McNally’s 150-minute tabloid tale. But that’s the disconnect at stake here–the glamour gulch between rhapsodic art and ugly violence. It’s the late 80s; AIDS has made early death a common crisis, so lovers must be held onto harder than ever. McNally’s fascination lies with two opera empresses who might have been lovers but, pathetically, have now dwindled into friends without benefits: Stephen, a possessive ex-lover, and his frustrated admirer Mendy are stereotypical tragedy/opera aficionados, wealthy and bored aesthetes in a Wildean subculture where good taste matters more than morality. (Boys in the Band is an obvious antecedent.) These are not happy homosexuals.

Stephen (Joe McCauley) and Mendy (JP Pierson) kill time with a magazine in Eclipse Theatre's THE LISBON TRAVIATA. Photo by Scott Dray.

To further stack the cards against these Gotham sybarites, McNally contrasts two healthy gays–Stephen’s former flame Michael, a down-to-earth physician in love with a cute waiter and social worker named Paul. Why should these young bloods worship the memory of Maria Callas when they have each other? It’s different for the divas: Magnificently miserable Mendy says, as if kissing the Spider Woman in benediction, “Opera doesn’t reject me.” For the mid-life crises known as Mendy and Stephen growing old is worse than dying of AIDS–and only in opera (the Marschallin in Der Rosenkavalier) can anyone pull it off with sufficient style.

Paul (Luke Daigle) and Mike (Joel Reitsma) share an intimate moment as Stephen (Joe McCauley) teems with anger in Eclipse Theatre's THE LISBON TRAVIATA. Photo by Scott Dray.

Kevin Hagan cleverly creates totally different New York apartments, one per act, on the Athenaeum’s concentrated stage. Mendy’s elegant digs are a cluttered museum of opera treasures and trivia, thousands of albums and the all-important shrine to the Greek “Divina,” in contrast to Stephen’s coldly modernist quarters. Soulmates but, alas, never sexmates, they both share an addiction to escapism. The difference is that Mendy, a lonely fanatic content with a discophile’s obsession, can live for art alone (“Vissi d’arte,” a la Tosca): But, burdened with a perfect pitch that he harshly applies to lovers as well as arias, successful book editor Stephen wants it all: His passive-aggressive spite-fights with Mike have all the passion of grand opera but none of the grace or glory. Carmen and Don Jose just don’t translate very easily into real life but murder, alas, fits anywhere.

Mike (Joel Reitsma) delivers a record to Mendy (JP Pierson) and Stephen (Joe McCauley) in Eclipse Theatre's THE LISBON TRAVIATA. Photo by Scott Dray.

Given McNally’s self-pitying stereotypes, utter realism is needed to keep this exercise in excess from leaping over its own cliff. Itself a case of perfect pitch, Steve Scott’s staging fills the bill: Out of so much small talk builds an eleventh-hour showdown as unstoppable as any Verdi vendetta. As surgically sensitive Mendy, JP Pierson is easily and exquisitely miffed. In a permanent snit interrupted only by sleep, Pierson drives home the dishy dragon’s sexual sublimation. (Possessing the title recording equals two weeks of solid sex.)

Joe McCauley’s supposedly sensible Stephen (also a former closet case still fatigued from concealing his sexuality) is aptly hysterical and controlling. Borrowing from another self-destructive soul, he lives “to hurt the one you love.” Drunk on his own elixir of hate and goofy with jealousy, McCauley’s brittle narcissist confuses “liebestod” with self-pity.

Mendy (JP Pierson) role plays as Maria Callas with help from Stephen (Joe McCauley) in Eclipse Theatre's THE LISBON TRAVIATA. Photo by Scott Dray.

As the younger lovers (whose jobs prove as purposeful as their “hobbies” are restrained), Joel Rietsma gives Mike a grounded common sense that’s utterly wasted on Stephen. Ten years younger, Luke Daigle’s adorable grad student is the proverbial youthful upgrade that Mike means to deserve.

Bitchy and brilliant, The Lisbon Traviata resembles a car crash seen from a safe distance.  Jealousy was never so juicy.

Mendy (JP Pierson) and Stephen (Joe McCauley) bicker in Eclipse Theatre's THE LISBON TRAVIATA. Photo by Scott Dray.

photos by Scott Dray

The Lisbon Traviata
Eclipse Theatre Company
Athenaeum Theatre, 2936 N. Southport Ave.
Thurs-Sat at 7:30; Sun at 2
ends on December 13, 2015
for tickets, call 773-935-6875 or visit

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