Presented by the Villar-Hauser Theatre Development Fund at the Greenwich Street Theatre, 547 Greenwich St., NYC, Dec. 4-Jan. 4.
What becomes two legends most? A play about them. The two theatrical legends are the French Sarah Bernhardt and the Italian Eleonora Duse, giants who dominated stages of the world with a passionate dedication—and resulting fame—that has not been glimpsed since their passing. The playwright, Otho Eskin, has the conceit that Duse, sick with fever backstage in a Pittsburgh theatre, is visited by the ghost of Bernhardt. The two rivals develop a friendship as they discuss their art, their lives, and their loves. It's a device that allows the playwright to provide a crash course in theatrical history, crammed with tidbits of information and written with welcome fluency. Reaction to this play will depend on the information each audience member brings to the piece; for some it will be an entertaining summary, for others it will be a revelation of two fascinating women.
As playwright Eskin demonstrates, the two women could not have been further apart in their individual approaches to the "holy madness." For Sarah (Laura Esterman), it was brilliant artifice, while for Eleonora (Pamela Payton-Wright) it was a naturalistic grace based on hard-found truth. It seems much easier for the playwright to convey the showy artifice of Bernhardt, which arrives over-the-top and vitally stays in that position all evening. Esterman powerfully prowls the stage, with some still touches of conciliatory wisdom. Duse's integrity and search for truth are far more difficult to convey in swift theatrical shorthand and, as a result, Payton-Wright has to struggle to bring to life Duse's luminous soul. Playing all the men in the two lives, Robert Emmet Lunney performs with pleasing economy.
In Ludovica Villar-Hauser's nicely detailed production, artifice also has a physical advantage, as Sarah sails in with better lines, better costume, and better hair. Duse's hair is particularly bothersome—or perhaps this writer cares much too much about equal opportunity for these immortal artists.