Review: ‘The Ladies of the Camellias’

Lillian Groag's comedy about a strange encounter between Sarah Bernhardt and Eleanora Duse, when both grand dames of the theater were to perform Dumas' "The Lady of the Camellias" in 1897 Paris, is a juicy tour de farce for actors. But the playwright overstuffs the work with every possible observation about life on the stage.

Lillian Groag’s comedy about a strange encounter between Sarah Bernhardt and Eleanora Duse, when both grand dames of the theater were to perform Dumas’ “The Lady of the Camellias” in 1897 Paris, is a juicy tour de farce for actors. But the playwright overstuffs the work with every possible observation about life on the wicked, wonderful stage, stretching what should be a delicious trifle based on an airy conceit to almost 2½ hours.

This long-evolving play is filled with bright dialogue, outlandish characters and an outrageous situation; it should be a popular attraction for audiences who might like to see a 19th century version of “Noises Off.” But some major pruning — especially in the increasingly didactic second act — is sorely needed to make it a popular attraction beyond the inside-theater crowd.

The premise of a diva faceoff is divine: Bernhardt (Judith-Marie Bergan) and Duse (Felicity Jones) both are set to play Dumas’ tragic heroine on the same stage on different nights.

But before the actresses meet, there’s much theater talk: Leading men swap horror stories about working with their stars (“She dies very well — eventually”); a playwright bemoans how no one respects his words; an aspiring actress (a furiously funny perf by Mikelle Johnson) quits the production when it is clear she won’t get a chance to shine with her scenery-chewing stars. When she proclaims there’s a life to lead beyond the stage, the dutiful prompter (played in full quirk by Tom Beckett) responds ominously, “There’s nothing but audience out there. And trust me, you don’t want anything to do with them before 8 o’clock.”

When the superstars finally do meet, the encounter is interrupted by a Russian anarchist who threatens to hold the leading ladies hostage until his political demands are met.

The second act consists of trying to convince the radical that theater folk are good for humanity, a strategy that meets with limited success. Eventually, Dan Kremer’s Coquelin — playing Cyrano de Bergerac in full nose — swings in to save the day. Clearly, Groag, director James Bundy and all the actors involved love the world of the theater, and Yale Rep’s production — beautifully appointed by its first-class design team — gallops along at a merry, if somewhat hysterical, pace.

Jones’ dour Duse is a study in dry humor, taking deadpan to ridiculously funny lengths. Bergan’s Bernhardt is all feathers and light (and some funny business with the feathers at that). “No one comes to the theater to see ordinary, darling,” she tells Dean Nolen’s weary playwright Dumas. But a little more extraordinary would have been welcome.

Marcelo Tubert as Duse’s leading man is a riot even in repose. John G. Preston as the unfortunately named Worms suffers grandly, whether with his Bernhardt or in a brush with a bullet. Triney Sandoval makes the sloganeering anarchist a wonderfully exasperated foil before a stageful of superstitious egomaniacs, brave outsiders and sentimental fools.

But whether it’s to show how much research she has done (the details about Bernhardt’s menagerie and past life don’t resonate, nor are they particularly funny) or to delight dramaturgs (the Ibsen, Shaw and Wilde references are far from knee-slappers), Groag can’t stop from stuffing the play with every theatrical anecdote, observation and literary reference she has accumulated. As amusing as much of this is — and perhaps it is more chucklesome when played before a School of Drama audience — it only slows down the proceedings and wears out the promising comedy’s welcome.

That’s a pity, because the play is on the verge of being sublime — capturing that magical moment onstage when “something happens.” And that can touch people no matter on which side of the footlights you fall.

The Ladies of the Camellias

University Theater, New Haven, Conn.; 650 seats; $45 top

Production

A Yale Repertory Theater presentation of a play in two acts by Lillian Groag.

Creative

Sets, Michael Yeargan; costumes, Jess Goldstein; lighting, Stephen Strawbridge; sound, David Budries; dramaturg, Michael Walkup; fight choreographer, Rick Sordelet; production stage manager, Sarah Bierenbaum. Opened, reviewed Dec. 2, 2004. Runs through Dec. 18. Running time: 2 HOURS, 25 MIN.

Cast

A Girl - Mikelle Johnson Benoit - Tom Beckett Alexander Dumas fils - Dean Nolen Sarah Bernhardt - Judith-Marie Bergan Eleanora Duse - Felicity Jones Flavio Ando - Marcelo Tubert Gustave-Hippolyte Worms - John G. Preston Ivan - Triney Sandoval Constant Coquelin - Dan Kremer
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