Sunday, 27 October 1989, 7.30pm. Promenade Theatre, New York. Seat C16, $30. That's when the ticket stub in my playbill (as they call programmes over there) for the original off-Broadway production of The Lisbon Traviata tells me I first saw this play (and how much I paid), and also, as it happens, first encountered the brilliant stage and screen comedy actor Nathan Lane, who made his name with his performance in it as an opera-crazy gay man, Mendy.
I only mention this because the play is so concerned with specifics about particular performances - and the obsessive, trainspotter-ish detailing, by Mendy and his best friend Stephen, of Maria Callas performances that they have either seen themselves or have collected pirated recordings of.
Much to Mendy's chagrin and envy, Stephen has managed to get his hands on a recording of one of only two performances that Callas gave of La Traviata in Lisbon on 27 and 30 March 1958. (Needless to say, they've both already got the London and La Scala recordings).
The riotously funny first act of Terrence McNally's play - revealing the intricate ties that bind this particular gay friendship and the hero worship of Callas that gives shape and meaning to their lives - is played at full comic tilt by the wonderful David Bamber in the Lane role, with Marcus d'Amico in more tentative support as Stephen, who works in publishing.
But d'Amico comes into his own in the far more intimate and resonant second act that powerfully chronicles the fissures that are erupting in Stephen's eight-year relationship with Mike, a doctor, who's now having an affair with Paul, a young postgraduate student at Columbia. No one does wounded vulnerability quite like d'Amico; here, he powerfully registers the naked desperation of a man trying to hold onto his straying lover.
Meanwhile, Tristan Gemmill's Mike, who spends most of the second act parading around in white jockey shorts, provides a visual treat but also offers a very moving portrait of a man who is leaving emotional devastation in his path, and no wonder: he's visibly quite a catch. Stage newcomer Matthew Thrift completes the quartet in the underwritten (but happily not overplayed) role of Paul, the catalyst for the ensuing domestic upheavals.
Stephen Henry's beautifully nuanced production in the tiny confines of the King's Head offers a complete set change (designed by Lisa Lillywhite) between the first and second act that puts the seal on a powerfully realised evening.
- Mark Shenton