March 25, 2010 | by Patrick Folliard
Exploring diva worship and gay relationships

Gay actor John Glover (right), who grew up in Maryland, stars in the Kennedy Center’s ‘The Lisbon Traviata.’ (Photo by Carol Rosegg; courtesy of Kennedy Center)

The Kennedy Center’s mini-festival “Terrence McNally’s Nights at the Opera,” a celebration of the gay playwright’s opera-themed plays, continues with “The Lisbon Traviata.” A tragic-comic tale told in two acts, this work centers on Maria Callas-obsessed Mendy and his simpatico pal Stephen, who is losing his longtime doctor lover to a considerably younger college guy.

It’s an exploration of diva worship and gay relationships, and this particular production just happens to be shaped by an amalgam of gay talent including lead actors John Glover and Malcolm Gets, and director Christopher Ashley.

Indisputably, Glover’s character Mendy, a flamboyantly bitchy opera queen, is an irresistible, showy role — it won many awards for out theater star Nathan Lane when he created the part off-Broadway in 1989.

Still, when McNally appealed to theater and stage veteran Glover to take on the part, he was resistant. “From what I’d heard, Nathan’s performance couldn’t really be improved upon, and I knew very little about opera. The prospect was scary,” recounts Glover, whose impressive resume boasts a Tony for his bravura dual performance in McNally’s “Love! Valor! Compassion!” “Smartly, Terrence advised me that those things that scare you are precisely the challenges that artists must accept, and of course he was right.”

A boundlessly inquisitive actor, Glover rejects stereotypes: “Mendy is so much more than the paunchy old opera queen (the very fit Glover dons a fat suit for the play). Surprisingly, he has an ex-wife and children. He really possesses a wealth of human qualities. I’ve come to love him. And that’s what is so great about Terrence. He has the wonderful ability to create these universal, sometimes hilarious, characters that audiences can relate to despite their differences.”

Glover, who grew up in Salisbury, Md., and studied acting at Towson University, credits a long and serendipitous working relationship with McNally with giving him his career. Now splitting time between New York and L.A., the 65-year-old actor works hard to maintain an incredibly vibrant career and relishes artistic growth. He’s immensely enjoying playing Mendy and discovering the world of opera.

“I’ve learned so much,” says Glover. “For months I’ve been blaring Maria Callas’ arias day and night. I’ve nearly driven my partner [sculptor Adam Kurtzman] insane.”

Similarly, the production’s director Christopher Ashley knew relatively little about opera when he accepted McNally’s invitation to be a part of “Nights at the Opera.”

“The months preceding rehearsal I really crammed,” he explains. “I learned a lot about opera, but ultimately I realized that the play is about obsession, and that’s something we all understand. Just about everyone thinks they know everything about something.”

Some faultfinders claim that “The Lisbon Traviata’s” first and second acts read like two separate plays: The first is all dish and laughs between old friends Mendy and Stephen at Mendy’s apartment; whereas, the second — when Stephen returns to his place to confront his unfaithful lover Dr. Mike and his hot new young lover — is operatic high drama.

Ashley, who is the artistic director at the esteemed La Jolla Playhouse in California and counts the staging of Broadway hits “Memphis” and “Xanadu” among his list of theatrical feats, notes that unifying the play isn’t impossible: “I’ve been able to lace the dark humor from the first half of the play into the more serious, darker happenings in the second. This definitely brings the piece together.”

And Ashley couldn’t be more pleased with his leads, citing his belief about gay actors portraying gay characters.

“They have a leg up because they’re more familiar with the people and what’s happening on stage,” explains Ashley, 45. “That certainly seems to be the case here. As Stephen, Malcolm [Gets] gives a fully realized, compelling performance, and every director should have the chance to work with John. His talent and enthusiasm are an inspiration. We’re creating something very special here.”

The Lisbon Traviata
Through April 11
The Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theatre
$25-$65
202-467-4600
www.kennedy-center.org

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