Two superb performances by a pair of exceptionally gifted actors, Anne Bancroft and Max Von Sydow, may or may not make your evening. The play they're in, Tom Kempinski's "Duet for One," which opened last night at the Royale, is of considerably less stature.
It is made up of a series of sessions between a high-priced East Side psychotherapist, Dr. Alfred Feldmann, who enjoys listening to Bach's unaccompanied violin sonatas on his impressive tape deck setup, and a once-brilliant violinist, Stephanie Abrahams, recently stricken by multiple sclerosis and now largely dependent on a wheelchair for getting about. Inevitably, the play produces overtones, both musical and otherwise, of the career of the talented young cellist Jacqueline Du Pre, who was similarly afflicted, but resemblances end there.
Though the work of a British dramatist and onetime actor, Tom Kempinski, here making his American debut, the playfully titled "Duet for One" is a New York play and one whose tone harks back to the Broadway of the '30s, except for some frank talk by the patient.
Growing up in a modest Long Island household, the girl discovered that she has a musical talent inherited from her mother, who had given it up to help her husband in his chocolate shop, and who died young. Stephanie became world-famous and is married to a composer she refers to as a genius, even though the fellow's still fooling around with serial forms. But she now feels useless and, as Feldmann draws out of her, has contemplated suicide on several occasions. It is his job to encourage her to find some new meaning in her life, to get her out of herself, and the play ends on a somewhat hopeful note.
What gives the evening bite in the first half is the patient's feisty disposition, developing into open hostility at times (she has come only at the insistence of her husband, who has chosen this man because he happens to be a music lover whose favorite instrument just happens to be the violin), and the doctor's matchless patience. Their sparring, which consists mainly of her rude and scornful behavior (punctuated by nervous you-knows) balanced by his immense calm, is fun to observe for a while, especially as handled by two such resourceful performers, under William Friedkin's skillful direction.
But Kempinski, in order to stretch out his play, must resort to some lurid developments (the principal one being an account of an extramarital affair by a now sloppily-dressed Stephanie) and equally lurid talk, and in the process he diminishes both the patient and the therapist. And fatally, I'm afraid, though an attempt at recovery, both in dress and attitude, is made in the final scene.
Long before this, the talk, even with layers of the past peeled away, has begun to be boring because actually only a single note has been struck by the playwright, and when he changes it in the second half it's not for the better.
As I observed at the top, however, the acting is first-rate. Bancroft is extremely believable much of the time, using voice and gesture like a true virtuoso. And the towering Von Sydow, a picture of quiet strength and wisdom, matches her all the way, though I found myself wishing he didn't wear so many loose-hanging and costly sweaters, however handsome they appeared (Jane Greenwood's wardrobe for Bancroft rings an equivalent number of changes).
As for John Lee Beatty's set, designed on the bias, it is every inch the consulting room of a very successful therapist, though its huge window looking on bare branches dominates a wall much wider than most Manhattan brownstones, and it unfortunately has enough shine to throw back distracting reflections of Feldmann as he stalks about.
"Duet for One" comes perilously close to fiddle-faddle, and doesn't have much to say, but at least it's said well.
Very rarely do you get a play where virtually the subject matter is just performance. The play is something in the nature of Czerny piano exercises - warm-ups for virtuosi. But however rare are these avowed and simple histrionic vehicles, their success in reaching their destination is even rarer.
I must be very careful here. The London hit Duet for One, which opened at the Royale Theater last night, adds luster to the current Broadway stage. But the luster is contributed almost solely by two magnificent, perfectly paired actors, Anne Bancroft and Max von Sydow.
In terms of pure art the evening's most valuable aspect is gramophone recordings of Nathan Milstein playing Bach. The play, by Tom Kempinski, is static, bravely sentimental, obvious and has a sad inability to end. The actual people - not even the stereotyped situation let alone the non-existent plot or the obvious writing - are all.
Yet in fairness, however, much one may decry the evening's failings, those characters were at least as much the handiwork of Kempinski as the actors so masterfully playing them. Even in tennis someone has to make the racquets and the tennis ball - and they also serve.
Miss Bancroft is a major concert violinist, married to a 12-tone composer, who is attacked by multiple sclerosis and will never play again. Although the play has now been transcribed, quite credibly, to New York, the author is English, and doubtless the fate of the great English cellist Jacqueline du Pre, would have been close to his mind and that of the original audience.
Miss Bancroft is prevailed upon by her husband to see a psychologist in the hope that he may be able to ease the pain of the trauma, and in a perfectly literal sense save her from suicide. She arrives in motorized wheelchair, for the sessions in the doctor's cozy booklined Park Avenue apartment.
The psychologist - a Freudian one presumes - is passive, calm, humorless, rather stupid, yet well-meaning. A child wandering around the minds of men. The violinist, now former violinist, has a very just appraisal of her position.
At the beginning she tells her mild-mannered tormentor that "music is the purest expression of humanity there is." After many hundreds' dollars' worth of sessions - for in psychology even amiable incompetents come dear - she has not changed her attitude.
Now at the end she tells us and her stubborn interrogator: "Playing the violin is where I live." No real progress has been made. And, from the audiences' point of view, no real play has been told.
Duet for One is merely two people locked in the same struggle, a struggle that soon becomes tedious in its obviousness, and whose outcome is never in any doubt.
Why then bother with the play? - and I suggest you do bother with it. Well first it does offer a certain voyeuristic pleasure. These sessions which have a seedy feel of nonsensical reality to them, are perhaps a little like the illicit interest of overhearing a confessional. Nothing much is confessed, but the atmosphere is there.
The evening really adds up to the actors and the direction. William Friedkin is a film director whose films I do not much care for - but here, straitjacketed into this simplistic dialogue, he does a lovely job, chiefly by letting the actors have their heads and making the most graceful use of body language.
The performances miraculously make a great deal less. It is pure alchemy. Von Sydow, with his tamed and battered Viking looks, is imperturbably moral as the good doctor, who takes as his religion the preservation of life. His smiling persistence, his dogged pursuit of the human cliche, his way of hopefully substituting sensibility for intelligence, is all beautifully conveyed.
He makes the perfect partner for the iridescent Miss Bancroft, who dances up and down upon her role with an unholy glee, as if it were a trampoline.
She is pained, flippant, cynical, tough, violent, profane, at times a self-schooled vixen, at others a burnt-out case. One can see what she has for the role, and what the role has for her. It was a marriage consummated in an agent's office but blessed by Heaven. Her guts and her spirit, the elegance of her style, and the passion of her playing all make this a performance of the most uncommon merit. With Von Sydow she brings a surprising degree of satisfaction to an unsatisfying, even junky play.
One of the most rending true-life tragedies of recent years is that of Jacqueline du Pre, the young master cellist whose playing career was brought to an end by multiple sclerosis. ''Duet for One,'' the British play that opened in an American production at the Royale last night, is a speculative, fictionalized dramatization of that story. Given Miss du Pre's fortitude in the face of her pain - a tale that is moving even in the sketchiest newspaper accounts - one has every right to expect a powerful drama. What we find instead, sadly enough, is a talky, chilly evening that proves, at best, mildly involving.
''Duet for One,'' written by Tom Kempinski, was a hit in London's West End, where it starred Frances de la Tour. I did not see that version, but one must assume that superlative direction and acting helped camouflage the deficiencies of a synthetic script. In New York, the production has been entrusted to William Friedkin, a kinetic film director (''The French Connection,'' ''The Exorcist'') with little theatrical experience and a sensibility that seems ill-wedded to the demands of an intimate, two-character play. Predictably enough, Mr. Friedkin's staging is less than galvanizing here. Less predictably, he has miscast and misdirected his star, Anne Bancroft.
The play is a series of therapeutic sessions set in the East Side town house office of a Dr. Alfred Feldmann (Max von Sydow). Mr. Kempinski's heroine, a violinist named Stephanie Abrahams, has been sent by her husband for help. Stephanie is in a wheelchair now, seven months after the diagnosis of her crippling disease, and she believes she has resigned herself to a future of teaching music instead of playing it, of conquering depression, of reordering her life. While she may feel a little ''low,'' she still presents herself as chipper and self-possessed. The fatherly Dr. Feldmann, of course, knows better.
To prove his point, the doctor asks Stephanie questions about her childhood, her marriage, her love for music. ''I think it is very important for you to discover your true feelings,'' he explains. Dr. Feldmann keeps probing the sore spots of his patient's psyche until her defenses break down, at which point Stephanie must face the fact that she is near suicide and needs a new, nonmusical rationale to go on living. While that rationale is presented as a revelation late in Act II, it should not come as a surprise to anyone who has read at least an encyclopedia entry about Freud.
The journey to this conclusion is far from scintillating. Stephanie's Jewish parents - a stern, disapproving father and sensitive mother - are casebook cliches left unenlivened by the heroine's descriptions of them. Her unseen husband - like Miss du Pre's, Daniel Barenboim, a musician - is a vague cipher. Stephanie's bleak, defensive jokes seem wan imitations of the hero's lacerating witticisms in ''Whose Life Is It Anyway?'' By Act II, Mr. Kempinski is relying entirely on four-letter vulgarisms to give them a punch.
The playwright's pathos can even be cheaper than his laughs. He brings one scene to a climax by having his heroine bolt from her wheelchair and, inevitably, collapse - a predictable bit of stagecraft that can also be found in the current ''West Side Waltz.'' The climactic line of Act I, believe it or not, is ''I can never play the violin again!'' Mr. Kempinski's bromides about music - ''It lifts you out of your life and into another place'' - are written in flat, omniscient prose that deprives the heroine of her own, character-illuminating diction and sensibility.
It isn't easy to stage a play that requires two actors to sit and talk, but surely the task can be accomplished with more force and imagination than Mr. Friedkin has brought to it. The production's lugubriousness is compounded by John Lee Beatty's uncharacteristically heavy set (well lighted by Dennis Parichy). At least Mr. Von Sydow, though he has little to do, is flawless: he's the cool, helpful, intelligent shrink of anyone's dreams. His one moralizing speech, in which he forces Stephanie to face the painful truth, gives ''Duet for One'' its single burst of passion and conflict about 10 minutes before the final curtain.
Miss Bancroft, unlike her co-star, gets to change her costumes (by Jane Greenwood) during most scene changes, and she looks smashing in all of them. Indeed, she looks smashing, period. But it is unfair to ask, as Mr. Kempinski does, that we accept this actress as a woman of 38: the discrepancy between Miss Bancroft's age and Stephanie's adds an avoidable glaze of Broadway artifice that distances us from ''Duet for One'' before it has hardly begun.
Still, some aspects of the heroine's personality come off in the star's performance: her anger, bitterness, pugnacity and willful, self-deceiving air of gaiety. What's missing are the additional characteristics that might prevent the heroine from seeming altogether pinched and shrill. Even in her teary catharses, Miss Bancroft seems too controlled and fierce; her sobs come from the throat, not the gut. We never do see, even for a passing instant, the softness that must exist somewhere in the soul of a great, sensitive musician; nor do we experience the full terror, not to mention the frailty, of a woman in the early throes of a degenerative disease.
Surely Miss Bancroft is capable of rounding out this character; a stronger director might have given her the critical guidance to do so. But that hasn't happened here, and, if we don't care about Stephanie Abrahams as we do about Jacqueline du Pre, it's because the heroine of ''Duet for One'' is a patently unfinished theatrical sketch, not a woman who might exist in life.