Prepare the award nominations for Janet McTeer, who gives a gigantic performance as the internationally renowned French actress Sarah Berhnardt in Theresa Rebeck’s very funny and intellectually stimulating play “Bernhardt/Hamlet,” presented by Roundabout Theatre Company and set in 1897 Paris. McTeer bristles with a larger-than-life personality defined by ego, theatrical flamboyance, sexuality, and, especially fitting for an interpretation today, the determination to break away from stereotypical visions of a woman’s place in the world and the theater.
In the intimate realm, the play depicts Bernhardt in a romantic as well as professional liaison with writer Edmond Rostand, played by Jason Butler Harner with enough intensity to emotionally match the dynamism of the star. Bernhardt is determined to play Hamlet, which she did in real life, shocking critics and the public by daring to play a man. There is much witty humor around the decision, rehearsals and her pressuring Rostand to write a revision of Shakespeare’s play with the concept of removing the poetry. The battle over the issue is detracting from Rostand’s writing of “Cyrano de Bergerac.”
Bernhardt is adamant about being tired of playing Camille in “La Dame aux Camilias.” A line in which she asserted her desire to break out beyond the customary place of women received a burst of applause on the night I attended. McTeer’s Bernhardt comes across as a force of nature, living beyond her financial means, loving to bask in the spotlight and enchant those in her circle, while hiding whatever inner doubts she may have.
In addition to her interaction with her theater pros, we see the complicated relationship with her son Maurice (Nick Westrate). There also is a dramatic confrontation between Rostand’s wife, Rosamond (Ito Aghayere), and Bernhardt. Much humor marks the performance by Matthew Saldivar as Alphonse Mucha, the artist who struggles to design the right poster for a female Hamlet. Dylan Baker is excellent and amusing as veteran actor Constant Coquelin. There is cozy interplay with Louis (a fine Tony Carlin), a leading critic who is so skeptical about Bernhardt playing Hamlet that he warns it can ruin her career.
There are moments when Rebeck’s witty play gets somewhat too talky, but the humor, performances and colorful direction by Moritz von Stuelpnagel come to the rescue. Special praise is due Beowulf Borit for his sumptuous multipart, revolving set. The costume design by Toni-Leslie James also contributes importantly to the show’s overall flavor. At the American Airlines Theatre, 227 West 42nd Street. Phone: 212-719-1300. Reviewed September 28, 2018.