Next Theatre

The problem with one-man biographical plays is that they promise a sort of intimacy they can’t deliver. The format, in which some long-dead Great Person materializes and speaks directly to the audience, seems to offer us a way into the GP’s confidence. Mark Twain’s going to chat with us now, and Gertrude Stein’s going to tell us a secret; Emily Dickinson’s going to open her heart, and Tennessee Williams will be charming. Just for us. But the conversation’s always one-way, and the topic’s always the same, and no one–however brilliant–can go on about himself for 90 minutes without seeming just a little self-involved. A trifle cloying.

Then too, the one going on about himself isn’t even himself, really, but an actor. To be bored by the actual Gertrude or the genuine Tennessee would at least be an experience of sorts. A brush, however measly, with history. To be bored by an impostor–well, you can do that at any singles bar.

So the format backfires. Instead of mesmerizing us with his wit and style, the pseudo-GP inevitably deflates himself. He talks too much and stays too long and can’t even provide the contact high that comes with proximity to fame. We end up playing Wally Shawn to his bogus Andre. And nobody so much as buys us dinner.

Now, the problem of the backfiring format’s finally been solved, by a Canadian playwright named John Murrell. The clear-thinking, practical Murrell decided simply to write a one-man biographical play with two characters.

It’s called Memoir, and it gives us a look at the legendary French actress Sarah Bernhardt over the course of an afternoon and morning during the final summer of her life.

The subject and situation are naturals for a one-man bio. Seventy-eight and slightly dotty, but still full of the flamboyance that made her the best known and most gossiped about actress of her time, the Divine Sarah could sit and tell tales on herself, her lovers, her famous enemies and friends. She could recount her upbringing as the cloistered daughter of a courtesan; her messy marriage to a dope fiend; and her onstage accident that resulted, ultimately, in an amputated leg. She might even be induced to favor us with selections from her greatest hits, including her title roles in Hamlet and Racine’s Phedre.

But Murrell was smart enough to see that if Bernhardt’s a natural for the form, she’s also its likeliest victim. The very extravagance that makes her an intriguing subject for this kind of posthumous interview would make her most susceptible to deflation. Reminiscing, preening, and performing for us in her Victorian idiom, she’d come across looking less like a grande dame than a blowhard.

He therefore gave her Pitou.

The historical Bernhardt had a Pitou, too. Georges Pitou was the diva’s amanuensis and–judging from the program notes for this Next Theatre production–her court jester, as well. She apparently made him her foil and scapegoat, using his incompetence, bullheadedness, and pomposity as excuses for what, coming from her, must have been fabulous fits of pique. High dudgeon and low comedy.

Murrell’s Pitou has pretty much the same function. He’s a footrest, a mirror, and a clown. He provides an occasion for Bernhardt’s reveries, a target for her tantrums, and even a reluctant partner for the little improvisatory scenes she creates to jog her memory as she dictates her memoirs.

Most crucially for Murrell’s purposes, he’s a distraction. The bits of business Pitou contributes–like his absolute and utter inability to return to a room with whatever it was Bernhardt sent him out of the room to get, or his ostentatious displays of ambivalence over having to act in Bernhardt’s mnemonic improvs–offer a necessary relief from the presence of the diva. Which could otherwise have become obnoxious. There’s nothing like a one-man bio for making a billy club of charm and hitting you over the head with it.

By drawing the focus away from Bernhardt, by placing her in a relationship with someone other than her audience, Memoir manages to convey a sense of charm without the lumps and bruises. We get all the anecdotes and secrets and impromptu performances that go with a one-man bio–but we’re saved the boredom and the false intimacy.

Harriet Spizziri’s direction recognizes the great reasonableness of Murrell’s approach, and carries it through in performance. Matt DeCaro’s allowed all kinds of room to play–almost, to mug–as the perpetually exasperated Pitou. That DeCaro doesn’t fall into the effeminate cartoon that’s always waiting at the edge of Pitou, that he’s able to dance along the human side of that edge, is a testament to his skill.

Barbara Patterson’s Sarah is positively understated by comparison. Though she occasionally reaches to a sort of medium high dudgeon in response to Pitou’s provocations, her essential strategy is to reject 19th-century bombast in favor of a quieter, more private, more literally retired characterization. This role, with its soliloquies and its opportunities for replaying bits of Bernhardt’s great theatrical moments, is a star vehicle if there ever was one. Patterson’s no star. But she comports herself beautifully, with clarity and simplicity.

For all its structural pragmatism, Murrell’s script can get hokey at times. There’s a metaphor equating Sarah with the sun that’s both obvious and banal. The production’s not exempt from hokum, either. Larry Hart’s sound design, especially, is a kind of lavender sachet for the ear–full of silly flourishes. By the time he gets to Pachelbel’s Canon, the melodrama of it all becomes funny.

Still, both script and show evoke moments of surprising strength. At one point, Patterson’s Sarah has let herself wander in a memory of her bad, beloved husband. Willfully, half-knowingly, she pretends that Pitou’s the man of her reverie. She pulls his arms around her from behind, holding his poor, embarrassed hands to her bosom. The image is stunning–this intensely sensual old woman, trying to act her way toward some comfort; this abject younger man, confronted for once with the sublime horror of a genuine passion. That’s a type of intimacy you won’t find in your average one-man bio.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/J.B. Spector.