Abundantly entertaining, Lillian Groag's "The Ladies of the Camellias," now at the Colony, is a gilt-edged valentine to the theater that begins as a frothy exegesis of eccentric celebrity and ends with a surprising philosophical punch.
That gilt edge is not figurative. The stage is encompassed by a lavish gold-trimmed proscenium, a fitting framework for Tom Buderwitz's sumptuous set, which vividly re-creates a Paris theater, circa 1897.
Bristling with brocade-covered divans and rich carpets, this stage is set for a production of "The Lady of the Camellias," Alexander Dumas fils' popular potboiler about Marguerite Gauthier, a consumptive courtesan with a heart of gold, whose picturesque death, in the arms of her repentant lover, Armand, ensured sellout crowds.
To the distress of company manager Monsieur Benoit (Tony Abatemarco), trouble is brewing backstage. Sarah Bernhardt (Victoria Carroll) and Eleanora Duse (Melinda Peterson), living legends with colossal temperaments, have both played Marguerite to vast acclaim. Now, both are scheduled to play the role on the same stage -- one at the evening's performance, one at the next day's matinee.
It promises to be a clash of the titans -- a fearsome feud that has the rest of the company quivering with dread. At first, the actresses studiously avoid one another -- until bomb-toting radical Ivan (Triney Sandoval) storms the premises, takes the actresses hostage and forces a meeting. But for these publicity-conscious divas, the idea of getting blown up has a certain, shall we say, je ne sais quoi.
Groag, who has revised and rewritten "Camellias" for the Colony's production, directs her own work with just the right touch of slapstick, maximizing its deliberate and delightful artifice. In the best tradition of other theater-centric comedies such as "Light Up the Sky," "The Royal Family" and "Enter Laughing," Groag's play concentrates on the comical foibles of eccentric theater folk. Inspired by an actual meeting between Duse and Bernhardt, Groag's play has the added advantage of being well-researched and scholarly, abounding with references to Shaw, Stanislavski and Marx, and rich with the kind of gossipy anecdotes dear to theater lovers' hearts.
Groag's sterling cast captures the genuine camaraderie of theater people -- an exotic tribe that fuels plenty of rollicking fun. But just when you think this enterprise might devolve into mere camp, Groag alters the discourse into an impassioned defense of art and the civilizing properties of the theater.
In addition to Buderwitz's remarkable set, the pristine production elements include Jeremy Pivnick's lighting, Jeff Folschinsky's sound and A. Jeffrey Schoenberg's handsome costumes. The cast includes the characteristically dapper Mark Bramhall as Dumas and Julia Coffey as a low-born supernumerary who aspires to stardom. Abatemarco brings a clockwork fussiness to his amusing portrayal, while Marcelo Tubert and Louis Lotorto render the most richly comical turns of the evening as the two long-suffering actors who play Duse's and Bernhardt's respective Armands. Sandoval is superb as a splenetic revolutionary whose bloody rhetoric conceals a hidden fascination with all things theatrical, while Chip Heller is a swashbuckling Coqueline, sweeping onstage in full Cyrano regalia.
Carroll's Bernhardt is unfailingly charming, although one wishes more of Bernhardt's famously acerbic wit were in evidence. A hilarious portrait of studied melancholia, Peterson's Duse is as deadpan as a poker champion -- and just as winning.
'The Ladies of the Camellias'
Where: Colony Theatre, 555 N. 3rd St., Burbank
When: 8 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays
Ends: Sept. 19
Info: (818) 558-7000
Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes