The opening playlet of Terrence McNally’s two-part evening, The Stendhal Syndrome , has Isabella Rossellini as a tour guide to three Americans schlepping through the Accademia Gallery in Florence. The action takes place round Michelangelo’s statue of David as the Americans try to relate to it.
Now this should be fun, I thought. Only last summer, I was in Florence standing dutifully before the statue of David, and we had a tour guide, but she didn’t look a bit like Isabella Rossellini. Ms. Rossellini looks as if she owns the Accademia, or ought to.
But our tour guide was different. What a bossyboots she was! She was squat, with a big bag on her back, and she wouldn’t stop talking the entire time. “Be pleezed to note the veins in David’s harms, pleeze. Why eez heez head so grande ? Who know? Follow me! Eez meeraculous, si?”
She was ruining my Stendhal Syndrome. Full Frontal Nudity , Mr. McNally’s curtain-raiser at Primary Stages’ new home on East 59th Street, reminds us that the ecstatic state known as Stendhal Syndrome was invented by old Stendhal himself when he observed people swooning in the company of great art. It can also happen, incidentally, with bad art, but let’s not go into that now. Best to swoon with the best-in the company of Michelangelo or Wagner, who’s the pretext for Mr. McNally’s second play of the night.
But high art can also function as a bloated device to dress up minor plays that flatter middlebrow audiences into believing they’re in cultivated company. Mr. McNally’s parodiable American tourists actually condescend to “ordinary” people, and the dramatist’s ear for them is tinny. “Wow! This is heavy stuff,” he has the dope from New Jersey exclaim as if in a time-warp. “Dig this!”
The opening sketch is meant to reveal how remote artistic genius is from the people (who are nevertheless drawn to it mysteriously). As if that weren’t patronizing enough, Mr. McNally descends regrettably to a coarse obviousness. “He’s got weird pubic hair down there, don’t you think?” asks Leo, the lowlife “character.” “Looks like somebody gave him a perm down there.” The audience snickers, but not too much. “I can tell you one thing. Only in a museum can you look at another man’s dick without people getting the wrong impression, you know what I mean?”
There’s also a dim bulb named Hector, who’s a grieving English teacher. Ms. Rossellini is the half-cynical tour guide named-of all unlikely things-Bimbi. And there’s a bimbo among the tourists named Lana who, we learn, is often called Lana Turner. But she isn’t Lana Turner, she’s Lana Maxwell. Isn’t that funny? Anyway, bickering breaks out around David (the indifferent statue), and Lana decides to tell everyone that “Heil Hitler” is the only German she speaks.
“I’m not a Nazi,” she explains, though no one asked. “I just love to watch old war movies. That’s where I got ‘Heil Hitler’ from. But I’m not a Nazi. I’m not even a Republican.”
“I bet I can fuck her. I’m sure I can fuck her,” Leo thinks to himself about the tempting Lana.
“Let the divine genius of Michel-angelo take you to another point,” advises Bimbi.
“I love her tits. That’s it, baby, show us your tits!” says Leo.
“How old was Michelangelo when he posed for David?” Lana asks.
Well, you get the point. This is not Terrence McNally at his sparkling best. But the evening perks up with Richard Thomas as the monstrously narcissistic conductor in the second short play, Prelude and Liebestod . Mr. McNally’s maestro-possibly based on the bisexual showman, Leonard Bernstein-leads his imaginary symphony orchestra through Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde in search of his own orgasmic Stendhal Syndrome.
He has sex on his mind, anyway. So does his sophisticated wife (Isabella Rossellini), looking bored in a box as she thinks of her lover. A young gay groupie (Yul Vazquez) is in another box, lusting after the preening maestro. And the concertmaster (Michael Countryman) tuning his violin has seen it all before.
But Mr. McNally once again settles for easy vulgarity, in blatant contrast to the refinements of Art and Culture with a capital K. The surly opening line of the concertmaster is “Asshole.” The opening line of the diva-soprano (Jennifer Mudge) is “Fuck you too, Mister!”
Meanwhile, transported by the swelling orchestra-“That’s right, you suckers, come on, play for me. Play through me, music. Surge. Course through me. Fill me up”-our overheated conductor, who’s the Evita of the rostrum, sees his wife up in her box reading something. “She’s reading! The fucking bitch is fucking reading and you’re conducting your fucking ass off,” he thinks indignantly to himself as he leads the orchestra to another blissful crescendo. “Jesus, I don’t know why I bother.”
Prelude and Liebestod is a one-note entertainment in that sense, showing us that the most gifted artists are often as crude and low as the lowest . They aren’t “normal”-not like us, right?
But Mr. McNally only grazes the surface of a fascinating, if familiar, debate. How could the talent of an anti-Semite like Wagner be blessed by God? How could saintly Tolstoy abandon his poor, abused wife at a railway station, or James Joyce neglect his insane daughter? Or T.S. Eliot neglect his insane first wife? How about Proust’s sexual thrill watching hatpins stuck into rats? How, for that matter, could a genius composer like Mozart behave like a farting idiot savant?
Are we all Salieris now? Do we still believe, in spite of all evidence to the contrary-Mozart’s infantilism, Wagner’s fascism, Pound’s fascism, Coleridge’s morphine, Hemingway’s bullet, O’Neill’s alcoholism, Williams’ drugs, Plath’s suicide, van Gogh’s ear -that good and great art can only be created by good and great normal human beings?
Who-or what-is normal?
But Mr. McNally doesn’t really go there. Besides, Amadeus has already been there. The big, crude note he’s playing is about great music and orgasmic satisfaction, and he’s pushing it a bit. “I told you in rehearsal: You’re singing through the wrong hole, honey,” the maestro charmingly chastises his soprano. “This is twat music. Listen to it. Listen to the words. You’re not singing. You’re coming!”
It’s a load of bollocks, really. But with Wagner’s irresistible Prelude flooding the theater, all seems passionately, romantically, roughly authentic. Prelude and Liebestod is a near-monologue of breathless desire reaching its apex with the conductor’s homoerotic fantasy about the greatest sex he’s ever had. He was young and beautiful when he met Gugliemo. “I was so beautiful that year-I was perfect-I was all I wanted-all anyone could ever want-and this cocksucker, this arrogant wop, this goddamn glorious dago, he led me on and on and on. A touch, a glance, a brush of thigh …. ”
Stop! you might think. But the music is swelling, and so is …. “Hands here, hands there. Hands over my eyes, hands over my mouth. Four hands. Someone else is there. I don’t struggle … the past is too remote, the present too frightening …. ”
Be that as it may, where is all this hyperventilating stuff heading as the last transporting bars of the Liebestod are played? It has to be to the rapturous Stendhal Syndrome Moment! So it is. And, just in case we don’t get Mr. McNally’s point, the swooning conductor holds his baton straight up like a phallus and plunges it into his abdomen, his face now transfigured in ecstatic dying.
Richard Thomas has come a long way since John Boy on The Waltons . He gives a terrific performance as the conductor, making the incredible almost credible and the play more fun, perhaps, than it really is. The evening is directed by Leonard Foglia. Isabella Rossellini makes her very welcome New York stage debut. Richard Wagner shows promise.