by Gail M. Burns, July 2006.

Duet for One made me very angry. I suspect this is a very personal response because my fellow audience members did not appear to be leaving the theatre with steam coming out of their ears. This play did win the London Theatre Critics’ award for Best Play when it debuted in 1980 and I assume it has had a healthy record of professional and amateur productions around the English-speaking world since then. I just happened to hate it.

This has nothing to do with the fine and professional production it is being given currently by the Chester Theatre Company (formerly known as the Miniature Theatre of Chester).

Duet for One is a two-person play by Tom Kempinski about a world-class female violinist, Stephanie Abrahams (Chandler Vinton) and her psychiatrist Dr. Alfred Feldmann (Kenneth Danziger). Abrahams has sought Feldmann’s counsel because, at age 33, she has been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and is unable to continue her concert career. The play depicts their sessions together over the course of several months.

When I read this description I was immediately intrigued. It is hard for anyone to deal with a life-changing incurable degenerative disease, but for a person with a great gift who has dedicated her life to its practice, such news would be completely devastating. Having an artistic gift is not something you choose, and coming to grips with the fact that you have one and that you have to decide how to, or not to, use it, is difficult enough. To have it taken away once you have embraced it would be shattering.

At times Stephanie Abrahams is devastated by her loss, and at other times she is able to cope with it in various ways. That sounds about right to me. I think that is what would happen whether or not she saw a psychiatrist. That it happens in the sequence that it does appears to be a direct result of Dr. Feldmann’s intervention, which is not always a good thing.

My objections to this play are manifold and I will bore you with very few of them. From my point of view it is demeaning to men, women, psychiatrists, and violinists, and that is just for starters. The real issues surrounding the responsibilities of having, using, and loosing an artistic gift are never explored. Stephanie’s despair and depression are treated as if they were mental illnesses, not the normal and appropriate response to her situation. Basically, when she feels happy and confident Feldmann tells her that she should be feeling depressed and angry, and when she feels depressed and angry he tells her she should be keeping her spirits up and fighting. No wonder she becomes suicidal! I was practically homicidal listening to the lunatic ravings Kempinski gives to Feldmann in the name of psychotherapy.

Much of what I object to is in the script and therefore is Kempinski’s fault, although I do have to question the choice of the play, made I assume by director James Warwick in collaboration with the powers that be at the Chester Theatre Company. But having made his selection Warwick has done a fine job of directing a piece that is tricky to stage. Stephanie is confined to a motorized scooter chair much of the time, and Feldmann generally sits opposite her at his desk. Psychiatric sessions are not known for their gripping physical dynamics – they are usually 45 minutes of one person talking and the other person listening and taking notes. Here we have 2 hours and fifteen minutes of the same, and Warwick does a nice job of keeping the two characters moving around the stage so that the visual effect is never static.

He is aided by Carl Sprague’s brilliantly realistic set. When I first walked in to the theatre and looked at it I thought, “This has to be one of the physically largest sets I’ve ever seen in this theatre.” When I saw that adequate space was required for a scooter chair maneuver, I understood and appreciated what Sprague had accomplished. The set looks exactly like a psychiatrist’s office, giving you that fly-on-the-wall voyeuristic sensation necessary to the believability of the show. As Vinton drives the chair around the set you become aware that all of the furnishings are cleverly pushed up against the walls to allow her a large open floor space, but on first glance the ratio of floor space to furnishings appears to be in good proportion.

Vinton does a fine job of portraying Stephanie’s many moods. Kempinski wrote the play as a vehicle for his actress wife Frances de la Tour, and as the title implies, while there are two characters on the stage, one of them is definitely the first violin and the other second fiddle. Stephanie’s mood changes dramatically from scene to scene, with only very brief black-outs to allow Vinton to change costume to indicate the passage of time. Vinton’s facial expression and the way she carries herself as she enters for each scene are a clear indication of Stephanie’s current frame of mind.

Danziger has a much more thankless job. Dr. Feldmann spends most of the play listening passively to Stephanie, and his few lines are mostly non-sequiturs of a maddeningly impartial nature. If I was supposed not to like Danziger’s Feldmann, congratulations, I didn’t, but not because I didn’t admire Danziger’s persistence. His program bio would indicate that he has played this part at other theatres. It would be interesting to hear from him how he sees Danziger and how the experience of playing him in different productions for different directors opposite different leading ladies has been.

During my research for this review, I was intrigued to learn that Duet for One had been made into a film starring Julie Andrews. Andrews has actually lived Stephanie’s experience, and if she saw something in this play I wanted to know what it was. But then I dug a little deeper and realized that Andrews had made the film in the mid-1980’s, nearly a decade before the surgery on her vocal chords that has deprived her of her artistic gift. The plot of the film differs significantly from that of the play and seemed, to me, ever more misogynistic and offensive. I wonder what Julie Andrews thought of the material then and what she thinks of it now? I wonder if she would agree to play Stephanie Abrahams today?

Remember, this review is ONLY my opinion. You may see things in this play that I did not. Certainly this is a professional and attractive production – one expects nothing less at Chester. And the company is moving this show to the Consolati Performing Arts Center in Sheffield, MA, for an addition week of performances, an innovation I applaud and a trick they will be trying again next month with their production of “Two Rooms” by Lee Blessing.

Duet for One runs through July 16 at the Chester Theatre Company and then moves to the Consolati Performing Arts Center in Sheffield, MA, for performances July 19-23. The show runs two hours and fifteen minutes. There is some adult language, and this is basically an adult show about adult problems, so I would not bring children under 16. For tickets and information call the box office at 413-354-7771.

copyright Gail M. Burns, 2006

Leave a Reply