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THEATER REVIEW : A Visit With 3 Icons : Arlene Sterne's look at Ellen Terry, Sarah Bernhardt and Eleonora Duse is a delight.

July 09, 1993|T.H. McCULLOH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

There is more insight than chance in actress-author Arlene Sterne's juxtaposition of three legendary actresses in her charming "Final Curtain" at the West End Playhouse. They may not have been the closest of friends, but they did know each other and often even played the same roles--Ellen Terry in England, Sarah Bernhardt in France and Eleonora Duse in Italy.

Sterne lets us visit them at the end of their careers, when the glamour still lingered but shone less brightly, after the slings and arrows of theatrical fortune had molded them into icons, and they could look back with sly smiles at the limelight. They even talk to each other in the pauses between Sterne's three vignettes as she changes from one to the other. Their grandeur precluded envy.

Sterne's performance--first as Terry in 1902 at the Lyceum Theatre she had shared with Sir Henry Irving for a quarter of a century, then as Bernhardt in a farewell performance at London's Prince's Theatre in 1921, and finally as Duse in 1923 at the New Oxford--is a delight. With only the assistance of a change of wig, perhaps a shawl or wrap, Sterne metamorphoses into each actress.

If a flaw must be found, it is not in Sterne's performance or the sensitive, knowledgeable direction of Russell Treyz.

The flaw is in the necessity for Sterne's script to provide as much historical data as possible to inform today's audiences. There is a bit too much chronicle to make the visits to the stars' dressing rooms as real and touching as they might be. This is always a problem in one-person shows about historical characters.

Sterne almost succeeds in clouding this inclusion, but it peeks out in spite of her intriguing, poetic performance.

Where and When What: "Final Curtain." Location: West End Playhouse, 7446 Van Nuys Blvd., Van Nuys. Hours: 8 p.m. Thursdays. Indefinitely. Price: $12.50. Call: (818) 904-0444.

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