We see a paneled study in BARBARA GELB's Upper West Side apartment in New York. Fruit, cheese, the tasteful components of a light lunch, are laid out on a coffee table.

Two women are seated on opposite sides of the coffee table: Gelb and COLLEEN DEWHURST, both sixtyish, the former delicate and fair with fine arched eyebrows, the latter bigger and bolder in every way -- coppery hair, salmon sweater, striking jewelry, explosive laugh. Friends for 20 years, they are now collaborators as well; Gelb wrote and Dewhurst performs "My Gene," a one-woman play in which Eugene O'Neill's aged, half-mad widow Carlotta remembers, dissects, mourns and fumes over her tempestuous marriage.

After 10 weeks at the Public Theater, "My Gene" begins a month-long run at the Kennedy Center this week. Gelb and Dewhurst have met to make some script revisions.

Gelb: As Colleen plays it more and more, she gets a sense of what works and what doesn't and she reports to me --

Dewhurst: Barbara agrees or disagrees --

Gelb: I agree or disagree and then we do what Colleen wants.

Dewhurst: (Laughs.)

She is famous for that laugh and, not coincidentally, for bringing O'Neill's heroines memorably to life. She's played Abbie in "Desire Under the Elms," Sara in "More Stately Mansions," Christine in "Mourning Becomes Electra," an unforgettable Josie in "A Moon for the Misbegotten."

But however fearsome a force Dewhurst is on stage and off -- she has been president of Actors Equity for the past two years -- she's not past looking for work. On the advice of actor friends, she'd been thinking about "an annuity," a solo show she could take on the road. "Mildred Dunnock, in particular, said, 'Colleen, get a one-woman show,' " Dewhurst recalls. " 'People are nice to you! They put you in a lovely hotel. You get up and do it. Next morning they mail you back first class and no one knows you left town.' " Maybe Georgia O'Keeffe, Dewhurst was thinking. Maybe Mother Jones.

Maybe Carlotta Monterey O'Neill, the exotic actress for whom Eugene O'Neill left his second wife. Dewhurst had once been Carlotta in a reading "down at Joe's" -- that's Joseph Papp, godfather of the Public Theater -- to celebrate the playwright's birthday. Barbara Gelb, who with her husband Arthur had written the first major O'Neill biography in 1962, and who had actually interviewed Carlotta, had put the reading together.

Dewhurst: So Barbara and I began talking back and forth, for a couple of years there. (Bites into plum.) How did that happen?

Gelb: I don't know; it gets very complex.

Complex, indeed. Gelb, author of several nonfiction books and many magazine articles, had never written a play. Dewhurst had never carried one alone. And Carlotta was a pretty intricate concoction herself, Oakland-born but with aristocratic European airs, jealously devoted for more than a quarter century to a moody, ailing genius. She typed his plays, screened his phone calls, nursed him through long years of illness. Eugene O'Neill worshiped her and abused her, had her committed to a mental hospital and made her his literary executor, referred to her in letters as both "Mother" and "Daughter." Carlotta was living in New York, eccentric but still vibrant, when the Gelbs were researching their biography. "We had this fiction with her that we were really not writing a book," says Gelb. "We were just talking to her about her husband. She got very nervous if a pencil or paper came out. A tape recorder, forget it."

Eventually, though, Carlotta O'Neill did agree to tape her account of the brief stay in the Massachusetts hospital to which her husband had committed her. "She was so anxious to clear her name, for the sake of her grandchild -- whom I don't think she'd ever seen," says Gelb. "She didn't want posterity to think she'd actually been insane." As the tape rolled, "she sort of went into a trance and told everything about everything."

Gelb remembers her as "very handsome, beautiful pale skin and sleek, almost black hair ... Very much the elegant and commanding widow and keeper of the flame."

"I can't imagine the two of them married to anyone else," offers Dewhurst, who by now feels she knows Carlotta pretty well, too.

Gelb: Carlotta had to do what she did for O'Neill. He was no good on his own -- he drank, he didn't write. Carlotta obviously did pull him together and allow him to write his greatest works.

Dewhurst: She was willing to give up that sort of personal achievement ... I'm amazed to find myself becoming defensive about her, explaining that yes, yes, all that may be true but ... And who knows what happens behind closed doors, who is the victimizer and who is the victim?

Gelb: (Decisively) I would say they were quite equal.

Dewhurst: An American love story, it really is. We breed these people. We are these people.

Transforming a compelling personality into an evening of theater proved knotty all around, however. Gelb wrote four or five versions, working with Gail Merrifield (a play editor and Papp's wife); Dewhurst wanted still more changes and was not reticent about asking for them. The play had a journalistic regard for facts; Dewhurst and Merrifield kept pushing for drama.

Gelb: We cut it by two-thirds. (Sighs.) Colleen is absolutely right, I wanted every date.

Dewhurst: (Laughing) It's very difficult to dramatize eight dates.

Dewhurst found it difficult to hold on to her lines, particularly since Carlotta's recollections swerved back and forth across the years. Being alone on the stage was "absolutely terrifying. There's no one else up there to help you ... Let's face it, there's no way to spread the blame." She noticed more than her usual weight loss during rehearsals. "You really get very irritable if people make a logical request. 'Hi, would you like to' -- 'NO, I wouldn't like to.' You're chained to this script." Not until several weeks into the run did she feel she'd nailed down her character.

Gelb: Yes, well, opening night was the most terrifying experience of my life.

Dewhurst: If you didn't know that Barbara doesn't drink, you'd have thought she'd had five or six drinks and was feeling very happy. Barbara was in trauma.

Gelb: (Shuddering) I never expected it to be that immensely, personally, professionally agonizing ... It's so exposed.

Gelb was, in some ways, particularly exposed. Her husband Arthur is managing editor of The New York Times, a fact that helped generate media attention for the play but also may have made it a target. At the opening-night party, across the street from the Public at the chic Indochine, the usual theater crowd was joined by all sorts of heavyweights: Times Executive Editor Max Frankel, Daily News Publisher James Hogue, Matilda Cuomo, Bernard Kalb, Don Hewitt of CBS, writers Joseph Heller, Elie Wiesel and Nora Ephron, artist Alex Katz. "Whose friends are these, Mom?" asked Dewhurst's son, gawking.

Dewhurst: Joe {Papp} and I said, "Well, perfect. No one cares what we're doing up here. We could be on the stage for four more hours and they'd still be thinking, 'Barbara Gelb wrote this. She's married to Arthur Gelb.' " (Nodding toward Gelb) She can never say anything, but I can.

Gelb: It's like when {critic} Wolcott Gibbs wrote a play. Everyone was just waiting. There was a little bit of that, lying in wait.

Neither woman read the reviews. Dewhurst has avoided the practice for years. Arthur Gelb clipped them for his wife and stashed them away for her to read some other year. "We knew we were being hit here and there," Dewhurst says.

In truth, her work was getting hit less than Gelb's. "Never mind that Mrs. Gelb provides no insight, analysis, or new perspective, so that the actress is handed mostly a jumble of data and quotations," John Simon wrote in New York magazine. "... Miss Dewhurst kneads, cossets, whips it all into coherence and shape." In The Times, biographer Justin Kaplan -- pinch-hitting as theater critic -- wrote that " 'My Gene' is somewhat less satisfying as drama than it is as a showcase for Miss Dewhurst." The substitution was meant to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest in having Times critic Frank Rich review the boss' wife's play. But, Barbara Gelb says, she heard muttering anyway about the unfairness of removing the normal critic in order to review the boss' wife's play. "You can't win," she sighs.

The man question -- it dogs them both, whatever they accomplish. Gelb gets flak because her magazine articles often run in The New York Times Magazine, though she insists her husband has nothing to do with assigning or editing them. Dewhurst, though she has lived for years with theater producer Ken Marsolais, will always be somewhat infamous for having divorced her first husband to marry costar George C. Scott -- twice.

Gelb says, a bit plaintively, that "there's no field I'm allowed to be in. I could be an interior decorator, I suppose." No, she couldn't; the Times covers that, too. As for Dewhurst, when she finally takes her "annuity" play on the campus circuit in a year or so (after hoped-for engagements in selected cities), she dreads the Q&A.

Dewhurst: The questions and answers consist of, "Now, how many times have you been married?"

Gelb: We'll whisk you off the stage the minute there's a personal question.

Dewhurst: (Morosely) It's all about, what should you wear.

Enter PHOTOGRAPHER, stage right. She coaxes Gelb and Dewhurst onto a single easy chair for a photograph. The two women trade jokes about Gelb's fastidious grooming and Dewhurst's self-described unfashionableness. They mug a bit. Gelb talks about how much easier it is to shop in Washington than in New York, and maybe they'll hit a couple of stores while they're there.

Dewhurst: (To photographer) This is our giggly mood. And then there's our thought-provoking, hard-working mood. Two Women, On Their Way.