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Two’s a Crowd in Story of Bernhardt

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Is it possible for a play with only two actors to seem cluttered?

If the play is “Memoir” by John Murrell, which opened Saturday at the Cassius Carter Centre Stage here, the answer is yes, alas.

The play, directed by Joseph Hardy, brings us the final lament-filled days of the immortal singer-actress-impresario Sarah Bernhardt (1844-1923) through a series of witty repartees with her longtime secretary and manservant, Georges Pitou.

She bedevils him with demands, he fights back slyly with tiny put-downs. Both have spells of forgetfulness and stubbornness.

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The lines doubtless read funny and poignant, but unless you have an unquenchable interest in the divine Sarah and a high tolerance for the articulate bickering of oldsters, “Memoir” is likely to be heavy sledding.

“Memoir” is at its best when, at the beginning of the second act, Katherine McGrath (Bernhardt) is on stage alone, wondering aloud about her life and loves, her art and her mortality.

Jonathan McMurtry, an Old Globe star for decades, is simply too strong to play the mousy, henpecked Pitou, and there is never any clear indication of the nature of the relationship between Sarah and Pitou.

Is Pitou secretly in love with his libidinous employer? Does he worship the gifted artist but disdain the impossible egotist? Or is he just a wimp, too timid to leave a secure paycheck?

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“Memoir” doesn’t provide much of a clue.

McGrath’s Bernhardt is a cross between Auntie Mame and Barbra Streisand--mega-talented, self-centered, lethally charming when necessary. She does a cold-cream number on her face that summons up “Mommy Dearest’s” vision of Joan Crawford.

As she rages against the dying of the light, and festers over slights and feuds that are decades past, Bernhardt mourns the passing of her free-loving, free-living era.

“We lived exactly as we chose, every moment of our lives,” she says. “We died young, at whatever age. The world may not have been a better place because we were in it. But it was large--more interesting--more innocent.”

The daughter of a Parisian courtesan, her triumphs and scandals stretched across decades and continents: the plays of Victor Hugo, Roxanne in “Cyrano de Bergerac,” wildly successful tours, the title role in “Hamlet,” and patriotic service during World War I. And finally, a tragic accident in South America that cost her a leg but did not diminish her spirit.

Her will was indomitable and her sex appeal dazzling. Think of her as the original Madonna, a love-em-and-leave-em material girl before it was fashionable (and therefore predictable).

In “Memoir,” Bernhardt bemoans not having the physical beauty of other actresses--an opinion disputed by others--and so she had to work harder than her competitors.

“I had only my eyes,” she says. “Everything else I had to create.”

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With material, and lines, like this, it’s doubly disappointing that “Memoir” fails to grip. A one-woman show perhaps would have been a better vehicle for capturing the dynanism that was Bernhardt. Pitou starts as a distraction and deteriorates to a nuisance.

Sometimes, less is definitely more.

*

“Memoir,” Cassius Carter Centre Stage, Old Globe Theatre complex, Balboa Park, San Diego. Through May 5. 8 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday, 7 p.m. Sunday. Matinees 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. $35 to $45. (619) 239-2255.


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