At first blush this Lillian Groag play looks like the Davis-Crawford vehicle that was never made as rival actors Sarah Bernhardt (Victoria Carroll) and Eleonora Duse (Melinda Peterson) settle into the same theatre to perform the same play, The Lady of the Camellias, at alternating performances in 1897 Paris. The sumptuously appointed set (by Tom Buderwitz), the fussy theatrical factotum Benoit (Tony Abatemarco, flawless), and the onsite author Alexander Dumas fils (Mark Bramhall), who despairs of ever hearing his actual text come from either actor, complete the comfortable illusion that we are simply awaiting an inevitable showdown. The arrival of a Russian anarchist, Ivan (Triney Sandoval), blows the show apart, figuratively speaking, and it becomes slapstick, eventually settling into an extended comedy of manners as debates rage about the purpose of art and the dubious purpose of this foreign notion—the theatrical director.
Groag amply demonstrates the fallacy of the characters' thinking ("A director tells you where to stand!" "You don't know where to stand?" "Of course I know where to stand!") by directing the piece as farcical clockwork. While it gets a bit precious when she has her two Armands doing entirely too many things simultaneously in their scenes together, it's an impressive bit of work overall. The gentlemen—Louis Lotorto as Gustave-Hippolite Worms, Marcelo Tubert as Flavio Andò—are a joy, each subsuming himself to his diva in his own madly entertaining way.
Peterson's Duse is a marvel of melancholia, her accent pure Italian but her demeanor more evocative of Garbo's Slavic reserve. Whether it's moving those dark eyes a fraction of a millimeter or executing a large, period-perfect gesture, Peterson is as fascinating as the woman she emulates. Carroll, on the other hand, never achieves a sense of grandeur or entitlement much larger than, oh, Mrs. Thurston Howell III. Her Bernhardt seems little more than silly and spoiled—hardly a living legend. Bramhall is a master of diplomatic polish as he negotiates with these two. Julia Coffey and Chip Heller shine in their respective roles as … well, you'll have to go see. Few things are as much fun for theatricals as watching theatricals being theatrical.
"The Ladies of the Camellias," presented by and at the Colony Theatre, 555 N. Third St., Burbank. Fri.-Sat. 8 p.m., Sun. 2 & 7 p.m. (Also Sat. Aug. 28 & Sept. 4, 3 p.m. and Thu. Sept. 9 and 16, 8 p.m.) Aug. 21-Sept. 19. $26-36. (818) 558-7000.