SARAH IN AMERICA by Ruth Wolff; directed by Robert Helpmann; scenery by William Ritman; costumes by Theoni V. Aldredge; lighting by Richard Nelson; special effects by Chic Silber; visuals by Lucie Grosvenor; with Lilli Palmer and Georgia Southcote.
At the Eisenhower Theater through March 14.
To call "Sarah in America" a one-note entertainment would be overstatement. As last night's performance heaved and puffed its way toward the final curtain, the audience could sense that author Ruth Wolff and star Lilli Palmer had a note in mind -- that they were trying to present Sarah Bernhardt as an overwrought, narcissistic powerhouse of 19th-century theatrical womanhood.
But even that minimal attempt at characterization was eventually frustrated by a grab-bag script and by the grating sound that came from the speakers on the Eisenhower Theater walls, a sound reportedly affiliated, in some fashion, with the lips, larynx and lungs of the star.
Given the obvious breakdown of the amplification system, and given the case of flu from which Palmer has been recovering, a full assessment of vocal culpability would be impossible. Given the play, it would be immaterial. What we heard when Palmer spoke last night -- and she was the sole speaking part in this chronicle of Bernhardt's triumphant American tours, spanning the years 1880-1918 -- resembled an old '78 record played at irritatingly high volume. Nevertheless, the words were clear enough to be forgettable.
Theatergoers with hearing aids can adjust-their own volume knobs downward. The rest of the community can only adjust their locations away from the Eisenhower Theater -- unless they can be content with the visual pleasures of Theoni V. Aldredge's lavish costumes (which Palmer wears very well indeed) and with a dazzling array of special effects -- trunks that open into plush miniature pullman cars, steam that billows down to suggest the foam of Niagara Falls, and projections of everything from the Brooklyn Bridge (in construction) to a raging snowstorm.
Otherwise, it is a measure of this production's utter futility that midway through the second act there unfolds a sequence of tear-jerking events as relentless as a whole festival of Joan Crawford movies -- and the needle on your cry-meter forces its way up to about 0.5 on a scale of 1 to 10. Terrible pains begin shooting through the aging star's leg. She resorts to morphine. Her beloved dog ("Hamlet") is crushed under the wheels of a speeding locomotive. The newspapers print cruel stories about her years and vanity, even suggesting she threw the dog under the train as a publicity gimmick. She falls in unrequited love with her latest costar, who promptly married someone closer to his own age. Her leg is amputated.
Even the Marseillaise and the Star Spangled Banner are invoked during "Sarah's" hell-bent campaign to moisten the eye. Indeed, only one device is neglected: Ushers do not come bounding down the aisles with paring knives and onions.
Sarah Bernhardt was a fabulous woman who led a fabulous life quite beyond the scope or ken of "Sarah in America." She rose to worldwide stardom from illegitimacy and a miserably unsettled childhood. Henry James, Victor Hugo and Oscar Wilde were just a few of the men transfixed by her presence. Kings and queens were reduced to tears by her acting. She painted. She sculpted. She wrote poetry and plays. And to judge from pieces of wisdom passed on to her acting students, she thought seriously about her craft.
If she had been only the high-pitched, larger-than-life, public-relations genius depicted by Wolff and Palmer, there would have been no cause to write a play about her. She may have been all that too, of course, just as the 19th-century theater may have been, on the one hand, far-fetched and formal, and, on the other, deeply earnest and capable of deeply moving its audiences.
To explain and reconcile such contradictions, and to draw us into a strange and wonderful period in American and theatrical history, would have been an excellent cause for a play. Unfortunately, in the few glimpses we get of Bernhardt on stage, her acting seems only silly and trivial, like everything else about "Sarah in America."