Why are these actors smiling in these press pictures, when one is a world-renowned violinist who has MS and can no longer play, and the other is her psychiatrist struggling to keep her from killing herself? Because by this time I’d figured out that pictures of people having a good time sold more tickets.
DUET FOR ONE, a two-hander which playwright Tom Kempinski loosely based on the life of Jacqueline Du Pre, was first produced in London at a Fringe theatre and moved with great success to the West End, where it was named best play in 1980. It starred Frances de la Tour, Kempinski’s wife at the time. It then went to Broadway with Anne Bancroft and Max von Sydow, directed by William Friedkin, where the NY Times called it a “quick failure.”
It was revived in a limited run by the Roundabout in NY in 1983 with Jeff Hayden directing his wife, Eva Marie Saint, and Milton Seltzer. Jeff pitched this production to us and we were all in, but scheduling complications for Eva Marie made finding a start date impossible. We had a theatre machine to feed so decided to go ahead on our own, with Linda Kelsey, who co-stared with Ed Asner on “Lou Grant,” and Allan, directed by veteran TV director Ron Satlof. The show opened at the Back Alley in February 1985.
It was a smash hit for us. Dan Sullivan’s review, which called the production “a gripping duel” was above the fold with a ginormous press photo of both actors laughing. Variety said Linda Kelsey gives a “bravura performance,” with the Daily News saying that she brings “an astonishing range of passion and intensity to the role.” As I recall, Allan’s performance was unlike anything I’d seen him do before, coiled, with quiet compassion ready to explode. Another reviewer said that, “DUET’s strongest selling point is not its story but its humanity.” Variety went on to say that, “What is so remarkable about this play, what lifts it above so many trite psychiatric scenes one is treated to on stage, film and the tube, is that her struggle becomes a paradigm of the quest for meaning that everyone engages in.” How we all deal with what we now call “death wisdom.”
Chris Idoine, who later went on to design the Academy Awards among a zillion other credits, brilliantly conceived of the shrink’s office as being raked. It was our first raked stage and no easy feat to navigate a wheelchair on, but it moved the production’s setting from prosaic to thrusting the phycological drama right out into the audience.
We moved the show to the Hollywood Playhouse on Las Palmas, and my recollection is that it didn’t do any better than everything else we tried to move.
Linda Kelsey is living in Minnesota in 2023, involved in local theatre. She never got the career she deserved, but maybe she didn’t want it. I remember her commuting to the show from Ojai, always removed from the hustle and profoundly focused on her craft. Jeff Hayden was ticked at us for going on without him and Eva Marie, but must have forgiven Allan at some point because he directed him in “The Sunshine Boys” with Hal Linden a couple of decades later.