Colleen Dewhurst is a star in the grand manner, and if the late Ugo Betti's "The Queen and the Rebels," which opened at the Plymouth last night, is largely old hat, the actress wears it with considerable dash.
This is a queen-for-a-day tale set in "the present" but actually dating back a generation or more (Betti died in 1953). A busload of travelers is stopped near the border of some unspecified country in the throes of revolution. The rebels, who are already close to victory, are interrogating everybody, papers in order or not, in an effort to find their former queen, who is reported to have escaped a massacre of the royal family.
She is, indeed, a member of the bus party, disguised as a peasant woman. But after a series of quick turnabouts in the action, an aging whore named Argia (Dewhurst) helps the queen escape detection (the woman escapes literally, as well, but only briefly) and goes regally to meet the firing squad in her place.
Betti is not quite as obvious as this makes him seem. He casts a jaundiced eye on all oppressors, royal ones and revolutionaries alike, and by inference all parties who seize control of a people. But his philosophizing, even sermonizing, is necessarily talky, and while all the fine talk has a nice ring to it (Henry Reed's translation seems to capture as much of the combined grandiloquence and niceties of expression as possible), it reduces the play to what might be termed a drawing-room tragedy. We have all learned in the past quarter century that governments and their agents don't waste time on fancy palaver in questioning suspects; interrogations have become much too sophisticated for leisurely probing to be acceptable even on the stage.
But while we can anticipate every twist and turn of "The Queen and the Rebels," the star's performance is grandly authoritative throughout, and when she sweeps off the stage to her death, our hearts sweep with her - not with the character but with the actress. Dewhurst is a treasure.
Supporting her in a large cast, Peter Michael Goetz acts more like a Manhattan professional man - a lawyer, perhaps - than the priest-turned-commissar whose nasty methods (he even brings in a small boy, supposedly the queen's bastard son, and threatens to draw his blood lest the "queen" reveal some names) the heroic whore counters. Scott Hylands is an effective weasel as a rebel minister who would readily ally himself with the winning side and who has recently been an intimate of Argia's (it is, in fact, her love for him that has brought her to this place, the playwright throws in). Betty Miller has an appealing scene as the disguised queen.
Aside from moving the action up to the present (the rebel soldiers all look like present-day guerrilla fighters), there has wisely been no attempt to make the play look like anything but the hoary, high-flown melodrama that might have been acceptable a few decades back. David Jenkins' brooding, towering setting of a "large hall in the main public building of a hillside village" resembles early Howard Bay, and in perfect keeping with the play's true period, as is John McLain's somber lighting. And Waris Hussein has staged the piece broadly, in accordance with its florid tone.
If Dewhurst can't quite sweep the cobwebs away, she at least makes a gallant effort. She'll be on hand through Nov. 7, according to plan, and you could do worse than watch this powerful actress demonstrate her strength and resourcefulness, even in a machine-made melodrama such as this.
It is a starry night. A woman - every inch a queen - walks out to a firing squad. A choice has been made, a destiny fulfilled, a life is rounded off in a jagged burst of machine gun fire.
But who was she, this woman? Why did she die? Uncomfortable questions have been asked, identities have been examined, the determining power of the inevitability of free choice has been upheld.
This is Ugo Betti's wordy, worthy and ultimately thrilling play, The Queen and the Rebels, which brought Colleen Dewhurst triumphantly and regally back to Broadway last night at the Plymouth Theater. She has chosen her conveyance with care.
Italian playwright Betti has been more respected than admired in the English-speaking theater. His quests for identity - often recalling his Italian predecessor Pirandello - and his conundrums of conscience have so far seemed ill at ease with our contemporary theater of observed naturalism and absurdist profundity.
In our theater world, Betti has been out of joint, not to say out of synch. This Queen and the Rebels (one of his last plays and among the most applauded) was briefly seen Off-Broadway in 1965 with Tamara Geva, Michael Higgins and Conrad Bain.
But it has had to wait more than 30 years - the play dates from 1951, two years before Betti's death - for this full-scale Broadway staging, sponsored by Circle-in-the-Square. Fashion can have cruel tides.
It is a fine, if tortuous play. It is set in a timeless revolution in a nameless town. Round about now, or yesterday - possibly next week. Rebels have taken over the village hall. A party of travelers, trying to cross a border to some kind of safety, is detained for questioning.
The insurgents believe that among the group is hidden the old Queen, symbol of rightist resistance, who has been living for years as a peasant. Is she there, and if so, which one is she?
Slowly, with the leisurely deliberation of a gambler or a judge, the playwright shows his hand. Peek by peek, we see the characters, particularly that of the peasant whore, Argia, develop with the play.
Argia has come to this village in search of an old lover, Raim, who is now time-serving the rebels as a minor official. And the Queen, a pathetic figure called Elizabetta, is indeed of the party.
Bullied by a wounded general and interrogated by a commissar, the group awaits its fate in a shell-rocked village hall. The Queen tells Argia her identity...and so far, so melodrama. Then the play gathers force. Argia is mistaken for the Queen - or is it a mistake?
Slowly the role becomes her, and she becomes the role. Her isolation as an outcast has not been so different from the regal insularity of a Queen, the pride she has built up as a barricade against ridicule and insults is perilously close to the imperious arrogance of queenly command.
The dignity of death she discovers is a choice as open as a grave. And like Dickens's Sydney Carton in A Tale of Two Cities she goes in radiance to her mistaken death. She had become the creature of her own lie, the victim of her own choice, and the heroine of her own will.
It's a magnificent role, and Miss Dewhurst plays it with all stops out. Her craggy, insolently grinning face, her raspy voice and air of earthy grace, give this peasant-queen a forcefully charismatic reality. She is the kind of actress who always performs as if bathed in some kind of secret spotlight, and this concentrated inner focus is adroitly used by the director Waris Hussein, to the play's purpose.
At times her acting is insufficiently modulated - it has more echo than resonance - but even this relentless tone works for the play. Miss Dewhurst stands out - and that, in itself, is Argia's purpose, downfall and opportunity.
Betti's characters are not individuals of any great complexity. The weasely lover, persuasively played with effete machismo by Scott Hylands, and the Mephistophelean Commissar (like the playwright himself, a natural jurist) here made almost silkily attractive by a splendid Peter Michael Goetz, are the only other people in the play who claim much of our attention.
The Queen herself, a distraughtly harrowed performance from a poignant Betty Miller, and Clarence Felder's bluff General, are as two-dimensional as the actual situation. Betti wastes no effort on details - his concern is with the dramatic imperatives of theme.
And the play is extremely engrossing - once it takes hold to the imagination it clings like a mastiff. It is also imaginatively realized not simply by Hussein's subtly attentive staging, but also David Jenkins' scenery - reality has rarely looked more cinematic - and Jane Greenwood's casually idiomatic costumes.
But the lasting impression belongs to Miss Dewhurst. Her sense of fun is almost cataclysmic, and she brings grandeur and radiance to Broadway. It is a moment of truth sputtered out in marvelously extenuated dramatic seconds - acting with the ineffable touch of glory.
''The Queen and the Rebels,'' the 1949 Ugo Betti play revived last night on Broadway, is about a busload of travelers detained against their will in a revolution-torn nation. The audience soon learns all too well what the boredom of incarceration must feel like - but the audience, at least, is free to leave. The actors, poor souls, are not, and whose heart wouldn't go out to them? No matter how talented or zealous they may be, they remain imprisoned in an inert melodrama that refuses to yield a single honest emotion or original thought.
The largely decent cast at hand is led by two very gifted actors indeed, Colleen Dewhurst and Peter Michael Goetz. They have been brought together by the Circle in the Square, which is staging ''The Queen and the Rebels'' at the Plymouth while George C. Scott continues to have his way with Noel Coward's ''Present Laughter'' at the company's home base. It's a pleasure to see the Circle in the Square break out of its awkward arena space into a proscenium house; let it be noted that David Jenkins has designed a top-notch set for the occasion. But why disinter Ugo Betti?
According to a program note, Betti (1892-1953) is ''still considered by many critics as a worthy successor to Pirandello'' among Italian playwrights. Whoever these critics may be, they should sue for libel. True, Betti's pasteboard characters are frantically in search of an author, but there the resemblance ends. There's no theatrical imagination, not to mention philosophical daring, at work in Betti's play. ''The Queen and the Rebels'' is all shopworn stage tricks in the service of moral platitudes.
The setting is a crumbling official building on the frontier of an unnamed land. (Betti clearly intended Europe; this production updates the locale to Latin America, but the author's vague symbols could be plunked down anywhere.) The various detainees and their machine-guntoting captors might as well go nameless, too, because they all speechify in the same rhetoric and are all black or white stereotypes. Among the principal antagonists are a whore with a heart of gold (Miss Dewhurst), a revolutionary commissar (Mr. Goetz) who would kill even an innocent child for his cause and an amoral insurgent (Scott Hylands) who straightaway reveals his intention ''to get out of this mess alive and rich.''
With the exception of the prostitute, named Argia, the characters never change or develop once their identities are encapsulated in a slogan or two early on; many of them just fade away. The frail story involves Argia's transformation from ''a cheap, low, dirty slut who never did a decent thing in her life'' into a martyr who allows herself to be mistaken for the fugitive queen the rebels wish to execute. But Betti doesn't bother to show the psychological roots of Argia's noble metamorphosis: one minute the heroine is a selfish tart, and the next she's a paragon of conscience.
The plot mechanics that send Argia to her fate are not to be believed. Betti asks us to accept the fact that no one in his mythological country knows what their actual queen (Betty Miller) looks like, that a murder plot would be hatched within earshot of its intended victim and that Argia would be unable to remove an incriminating ring placed on her finger.
Nor is there any intellectual debate to substitute for dramatic tension. No one on stage strenuously argues against Argia's conviction that every individual must choose between ''yes and no'' when confronting tyranny -and who in the audience would either? Betti, a Roman magistrate as well as a playwright, constructed an open-and-shut case - good jurisprudence, perhaps, but deadly theater.
The evening might be more bearable if the author's cliches weren't draped in flat language and pretentiousness. Just so we know that ''Rebels'' is a microcosm, it's announced at the beginning (in Henry Reed's translation) that the mythical setting ''is a picture of the whole world in its small way.'' Soon we're hearing that the revolution's corpses have ''the smell of history'' and that ''there are two kinds of people in this world - those who eat beefsteak and those who eat potatoes.'' Though Betti stops short of saying that civil war is hell, he does proclaim it ''a devil's cauldron.''
Despite the holocaustal sound effects and John McLain's apocalyptic lighting, Waris Hussein, the director, doesn't create an atmosphere of terror. His staging is otherwise routine, until an Act II trial scene that is as broad as comic opera. It's almost impossible to evaluate his cast, because Betti gives the actors no subtext to unearth. Every feeling and thought is announced; the play's surface is always the thing.
Mr. Goetz, a cool interrogator, and Miss Miller, a ravaged madonna of a monarch, do their diligent best. Miss Dewhurst, though not free of mannerisms (hair tossing, hands on hips), is in full command of the stage, and she works like a demon to find some way into Argia. Her earthy laughter and withering sarcasm bring a welcome smidgen of warmth to the otherwise humorless events; she pumps some blood into the contrived tableaux in which she comforts the destitute queen and, later, the queen's abandoned child. She also brings fire to a late speech championing a woman's right to respect from men; it's because the monologue is a predictable statement of the obvious that Argia sounds less like a tragic heroine than a politician running for office.
The real disappointment, of course, is that one of our foremost actresses would waste herself in this warhorse in the first place. While Miss Dewhurst is to be applauded for helping to bring a noncommercial play to Broadway, why not do one by Pirandello himself - or by the other superior writers, such as Anouilh and Durrenmatt, that Betti tries so vainly to imitate? By reviving ''The Queen and the Rebels,'' the star and her company show that their hearts are in the right place, but not, sad to say, their minds.