Laura Esterman and Pamela Payton-Wrightas Bernhardt and Duse in Duet
(Photo © Rainer Fehringer)
Laura Esterman and Pamela Payton-Wright
as Bernhardt and Duse in Duet
(Photo © Rainer Fehringer)
Anyone who is particularly interested in the history of acting and actors won't want to miss Duet, the Otho Eskin play that's receiving its New York premiere at the Greenwich Street Theatre. Concerned entirely with the lives of two of the world's most famous and acclaimed stage actresses, Sarah Bernhardt and Eleonora Duse, the play is a theater history lesson brought to life, an examination of the two acclaimed women and the work that sometimes divided them and sometimes brought them together.

Eskin has unquestionably researched his subjects thoroughly; there's no way you can leave Duet without a much stronger understanding of the differences between the two legendary actresses. But is his mostly academic study of the two women enough to sustain a play, even a relatively brief one (Duet runs 80 minutes)? The answer is a firm "almost." While Eskin effectively draws you into the women's personal and professional worlds, he's less successful at providing dramatic substance for the piece. The setup is no more than this: Duse (Pamela Payton-Wright) is discovered in her dressing room at Pittsburgh's Syria Theatre in April 1924. Convinced that she's too ill to perform before the sold-out crowd of 4,000, she hallucinates Bernhardt (Laura Esterman), who died the year before.

Although Duse herself will be dead in less than a month, the rivalry between the two actresses won't end until they have each drawn their last breaths, and they spend most of the play debating and defending their distinct performance styles and lifestyles. Bernhardt, who preferred to stick with classic plays, was an extremely presentational performer who often repeated externalized gestures from performance to performance and stressed flamboyant theatricality at the expense of emotional truth. In contrast, Duse pursued new works (particularly those of Ibsen) and was intent on creating realistic stage portraits; she tapped into her emotions to create fresh performances every time and, as far as possible, eschewed the physical elements of theater (makeup, sets, elaborate costumes, etc.) that she believed obscured the characters she played.

While Duse is generally considered today to have been the better actress in that her style of performance was more in tune with what we're now accustomed to, Eskin nevertheless establishes Bernhardt as a master of her craft. This gives the women's frequent arguments and disagreements real weight and allows us to understand Bernhardt's great appeal to audiences of her era. Eskin makes his major point most succinctly late in the evening by suggesting that Bernhardt was the last great actress of the 19th century and Duse the first great actress of the 20th, thus giving each woman her due.

The play is most interesting when Eskin tackles the issues in creative ways. Duse's acting style is well explained when she's reviewed by George Bernard Shaw, who compares her style to Bernhardt's. Conversely, Bernhardt's ethereal appeal is evident when Duse opens in Paris in Alexandre Dumas fils's La Dame aux Camelias -- perhaps Bernhardt's most famous vehicle -- to a set of notices that unfailingly compare her to The Divine Sarah. When both Duse and Bernhardt re-enact scenes from plays in which they both triumphed, including La Dame aux Camelias, the evident differences in their interpretations is easily worth a thousand of Eskin's words.

Pamela Payton-Wright, Laura Esterman,and Robert Emmet Lunney in Duet
(Photo © Rainer Fehringer)
Pamela Payton-Wright, Laura Esterman,
and Robert Emmet Lunney in Duet
(Photo © Rainer Fehringer)
These scenes clearly express what Eskin wants to accomplish in Duet, but the playwright rarely captures the sense of rivalry as well as he does in the sequence where Duse and Bernhardt meet prior to Duse's Paris debut. Was there ever really a moment quite like this between the two women? As Eskin composed much of the play from existing material documenting the lives and work of the two actresses, it's difficult to call the veracity of any scene into question. But if Eskin had relied less on reality and more on his own dramatic talents, Duet might have had some of the spice it noticeably lacks as the women's arguments drag on.

The worst that can be said about either actress is that Payton-Wright doesn't look much like Duse; beyond that, both are well cast and their work is generally excellent. Esterman, with her calculated hand gestures, bulging eyes, and throbbing voice, beautifully captures Bernhardt's melodramatic style. Payton-Wright quietly and thoughtfully communicates Duse's pain, which seems to affect her will to perform as her confrontations with Bernhardt escalate. Both actresses, drawing on their characters' stage personae to inform their personalities, bring vibrant color to even the awkward moments of Eskin's script that seem more like an Acting 101 lecture than a play. Robert Emmet Lunney is fine in a series of incidental roles as the men in both women's lives, but his is an uphill struggle as Eskin focuses on demonstrating how Duse and Bernhardt achieved superstardom in what was very much a man's world.

Ludovica Villar-Hauser has directed the play with a quiet sensitivity that's reflected in the unassuming set of Mark Symczak. Christopher Lione's costumes are just right -- understated for Duse, relentlessly gaudy for Bernhardt -- and Doug Filomena's lights help keep the atmosphere somewhat low-key. Duet thrives when Duse, Bernhardt, Payton-Wright, and Esterman are kept center stage where they belong.