Esterman Is Bernhardt and Payton-Wright Is Duse in Duet Off Broadway, Nov. 18

News   Esterman Is Bernhardt and Payton-Wright Is Duse in Duet Off Broadway, Nov. 18 Duet, a new play by Otho Eskins, will bring back to life two women routinely numbered among the greatest actresses of all time: Sarah Bernhardt and Eleonora Duse. The drama begins previews at Greenwich Street Theatre on Nov. 18 for an opening on Dec. 4. The run is through Jan. 4, 2004.

Eskins and the show's director, Ludovica Villar-Hauser, are not widely known, but the play features two of the New York stage's best character actresses in the story's juicy leads. Laura Esterman, who has acted in Marvin's Room, Good as New, Freedomland and Cranes, plays The Divine Sarah. Pamela Payton-Wright, who was recently seen in Fifth of July and spelled for Vanessa Redgrave during her brief absence from Long Day's Journey Into Night, will be La Duse. The two thespians were considered the greatest actresses in the world during much of their lifetimes (Bernhardt died in 1923, Duse in 1924). Artistically, however, they couldn't have been more different. The French Bernhardt's fame, established in melodramas by Dumas fils and Sardou, was firmly rooted in the cult of personality that surrounded her. With her sculpting career, many lovers and habit of sleeping in a coffin, she made for consistent newspaper fodder. Duse, meanwhile, pursued a modern playing style in the plays of Gabriele D'Annunzio and Henrik Ibsen. She abhorred publicity.

The two were great rivals, and with good reason. Their repertoires often overlapped; The Lady of the Camellias was a huge success for both. D'Annunzio, Duse's longtime lover, gave his first play to Bernhardt. And in 1895, both actresses simultaneously appeared in competing London productions of Hermann Sudermann's Heimat, resulting in a famous review in which George Bernard Shaw compared the two (he preferred Duse).

The play, which depicts a surprise encounter between the two, also features Robert Emmet Lunney.