No playwright this decade has enjoyed the success of Terrence McNally. He's received Tony Awards, big commissions (he got the job writing the book for the musical Ragtime), and the controversy that makes you a big, big draw at the box office. His latest play, Corpus Christi, is the talk of New York theater this season, what with its depiction of a Christ-like figure who buggers his disciples. (The usually temperate Pat Buchanan further inflated McNally's overpuffed reputation when he likened the play's attack on wholesome Christian values to Nazis marching on Skokie, Illinois.)
Along with his success, McNally has earned the title of America's most prolific and vocal gay playwright. While the versatile McNally has written an amazing number of plays in his 30-year career, his gay plays elicit the most attention, as evidenced by the furor over Corpus Christi and the adulation lavished on his 1996 play Love! Valour! Compassion!-one of the most rambling, inane plays you're likely to sit through.
You can add The Lisbon Traviata, now receiving a production at the Theatre District, to McNally's gay-plays list-and enter it as one more piece of evidence that a judge somewhere ought to have the good sense to file a restraining order on McNally, keeping his plays as far from local stages as possible.
It's not McNally's politics I detest; it's the content and writing of McNally's plays I can't stand. The stories are intellectually void slices of gay life. Their gravest sin is that they are simply boring. His characters seem pulled from the gay-stereotype shelf at the local clich store: they're whiny and histrionic.
But there's something even more distasteful about McNally's gay-oriented works: they seem designed to appeal to the most prurient interest in the most mediocre of fashions. Indeed, it's reasonable to suspect that McNally has become the toast of New York City simply by writing plays in which men show their wangs and talk about fucking each other. There's nothing wrong with having an agenda. There's nothing wrong with shocking the bourgeoisie; the bourgeoisie-especially the straight, liberal bourgeoisie-like it. But there's something terribly wrong when you do both without the benefit of great ideas, characters or language to back it all up. When you do that, you're-well, you're Mainstream America's Favorite Gay Playwright. You're Tennessee Williams without the poetry. You're Terrence McNally.
Still, McNally's plays are contemporary, and gay-themed plays are infrequent sights on local stages. On both counts, we should applaud the Theatre District's decision to stage The Lisbon Traviata. Director Mario Lescot even goes one step further: he actually helps McNally's overwrought, overbearing tragedy feel more humane and touching than the wan script and thin characters deserve.
But not even Lescot's deft touch is enough to save the play from itself. As the name implies, The Lisbon Traviata has a lot to do with opera. And-poor opera, already down on its luck these past 100 years-it must now suffer this bad advertisement. McNally structures his play like one of those grand, boring operas: a campy, comic first act and a depressingly tragic second act.
The play begins in the eccentric, bohemian Manhattan flat of Mendy (a funny and poignant David Rousseve), a flamboyant queen who sates his love-starved existence by obsessing on opera star Maria Callas. Mendy has just made dinner for his longtime friend Stephen (Brian Kraft, who only skims the surface of his character), who is an equally obsessed opera nut. The first act consists of the two rattling off important dates and performances in opera history like a couple of baseball-stat freaks on a Jolt Cola binge. The game of operatic Trivial Pursuit is occasionally broken up by Mendy, who complains that he is lonely, and Stephen, who thanks God he has a great lover like Mike, whom he met eight years before-at a party Mendy threw to woo Stephen. Doh!
Things get way intense in the second act, when we find that Stephen's depiction of his relationship with Mike isn't close to true. Turns out the only reason Stephen was dining with Mendy is that Mike was at their shared home with his new flame, Paul (Joe Massie), whom he's been shagging for six months.
We discover this the next morning, when Stephen returns home a few minutes early to find his prized record albums scratched, the record sleeves in a pizza box, and Mike and Paul in a state of undress. We soon discern intractable problems between Stephen and Mike, and-here's more or less the pointless, faux-literary point of the whole thing-we can see that Stephen's obsession with Mike mirrors Mendy's obsession with Callas. This being a play that uses opera so pervasively, it's only a matter of time before things explode in the most overwrought fashion.
Lescot manages to inject some life into this tired affair. But nothing can save this play. Particularly terrible is the interminably long second act, when Stephen and Mike spend what seems like an eternity accusing each other of ruining their once-passionate relationship. The breakup of a partnership is often a bloody affair, but this one never seems to rise above the level of shit slinging. Instead of feeling universal and heart-wrenching, this breakup feels dull and contrived. It demeans the characters; they scream and yell, but they don't say anything. Maybe it's too true to life, or maybe it's just plain bad writing, but even the final, surprisingly violent climax isn't enough to exorcise the insipid spirit.
If McNally's plays suffer from a dearth of ideas, there's a plethora of light bulbs going off in Samuel Beckett's 1961 landmark Happy Days, surely one of the most bizarre plays ever written. It features two characters: Winnie, a relentlessly optimistic woman who begins the play symbolically buried up to her waist and ends it buried up to her neck, and her husband, Willie, who spends most of the play either crawling around on all fours or reading the newspaper, occasionally interrupting Winnie's monologue. On the one hand, it's a simple play. Winnie is immobilized, and she has nothing left to do but talk and find ways to wile away the time. On the other hand, it's fiercely complex, a rather horrifying portrait of the futility of existence, as well as a curiously uplifting story about courage in the face of meaninglessness.
It's also a very challenging play to read, watch or produce. And since challenging is always good in our book, the Rude Guerrilla Theater Company's decision to mount Happy Days as the debut show in its new downtown Santa Ana space deserves nothing but praise.
I wish the same could be said for the production. Director Dave Barton (who is also a Weekly theater critic) accomplishes something I've never seen before: he focuses attention on the relationship between Winnie and Willie. Audiences are likely to leave the theater feeling sorry for the couple's fate-entirely missing Beckett's dreadful majesty, the intellectual paralysis and existential horror he means to convey. Although Barton gets the humor right, the more potent stuff is mostly absent from this production.
Perhaps the intent was to lighten the intellectual freight in order to help make Happy Days happier for contemporary audiences. But I'm not sure this play needs it. This is postmodern myth and metaphor; it doesn't need to feel relevant or updated or contemporary as much as it needs to feel real. To do that, one master must be served: the text. And that doesn't happen often enough to make this Happy Days work as effectively as it could.
The Lisbon Traviata at the Theatre District, 2930 Bristol St., Costa Mesa, (714) 435-4043. Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m. Through Dec. 5. $15-$20;Happy Days at the Empire Theater, 200 N. Broadway, Santa Ana, (714) 409-9853. Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m. Through Dec. 6. $10-$12.