WHEN | WHERE Through Nov. 11, American Airlines Theatre, 227 W. 42nd St.
INFO From $49; 212-719-1300, roundabouttheatre.org
BOTTOM LINE An intelligent but uneven contemplation of the legendary actress.
"No one upstages me," emphatically declares Sarah Bernhardt. Nor does anyone upstage Janet McTeer, who plays the legendary French actress in the world premiere of "Bernhardt/Hamlet," the intelligent but uneven play by Theresa Rebeck at the Roundabout Theatre Company.
McTeer commands the stage from the start, showing us a troubled Bernhardt trying to rationalize a rather tempestuous decision — to take on the role of Hamlet. Having just built an impressive new theater (one she could not necessarily afford, we learn later) and made a firm decision to be done playing the ingénue, why not, she wonders, perform one of Shakespeare's most complex roles?
Everybody and their cousin has an answer to that, as the play dips into gender issues as relevant today as they were in 1897. Bernhardt maintains that playing "the flower" is not only beneath her, but beneath all women. She consults her lover, playwright Edmond Rostand, who counters with the harsh truth: "No one wants to see a woman play Hamlet."
She isn't buying the argument, all but commanding Rostand to give up his own work — no less than "Cyrano de Bergerac" — to rewrite Hamlet without the poetic dialogue she's struggling to make sense of. Intriguing theater lore, to be sure, but these concepts get lost in too many prolonged discussions, and director Moritz von Stuelpnagel allows the words to fly at such a torrential pace that it's often difficult to keep up.
Rebeck is enamored with Bernhardt's history, which allows for fascinating glimpses of the hangers-on who inhabit her world. Along with Rostand (Jason Butler Harner), we meet her son, Maurice (Nick Westrate), noted actor Constant Coquelin (Dylan Baker) and Alphonse Mucha (Matthew Saldivar), the artist who famously designed her deco theatrical posters — so popular they're still around (Walmart sells a print for $44.99).
Beowulf Boritt's set revolving from a bare 19th century backstage to Bernhardt's ornate dressing room makes for considerable visual appeal, as do Toni-Leslie James' costumes, perfectly capturing the "divine Sarah," who only briefly trades her trousers for one magnificent beaded ballgown.
But it's the intimate, almost reverential look at this actress and all her eccentricities (say, sleeping in a coffin) that allows us to forgive the flaws in the work and makes it so stimulating, especially for those with any interest in theatrical history. Rebeck loses no opportunity to remind us of the stature of her subject, most notably with a line attributed to Mark Twain. “There are five kinds of actresses," he is quoted. "Bad actresses, fair actresses, good actresses, great actresses — and then there is Sarah Bernhardt."