‘Bernhardt/Hamlet’ review: Janet McTeer imposing in timely play

If you go: “Bernhardt/Hamlet” runs through Nov. 11 at the American Airlines Theatre, 227 W. 42nd St., roundabouttheatre.org.

“For a woman to play at being a man is, surely, a tremendous handicap in the attempt to produce a stage illusion,” actress Elizabeth Robins wrote dismissively of the 55-year-old Sarah Bernhardt (one of the world’s best-known celebrities at the turn of the century) playing the Prince of Denmark in a French adaptation of Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” in 1897 — failing to acknowledge that men played women in Shakespeare’s day.

Theresa Rebeck uses this notorious episode in theater history to explore sexism and female empowerment and delve into layered, dramatic analysis in the contemplative and jumbled backstage comedy “Bernhardt/Hamlet,” which is receiving its world premiere on Broadway in a production by the Roundabout Theatre Company starring the Tony-winning English actress Janet McTeer (“Mary Stuart,” “A Doll’s House”).

As envisioned by Rebeck, the French Bernhardt (who is praised by colleagues as “our divine Sarah” and “the greatest actress alive”) is at a turning point in her life and career. Discontent with ingénue roles, in immediate need of money and in the midst of an affair with a married man, Bernhardt decides to play Hamlet, which is skeptically derided as the “absurd whim of an aging actress.”

McTeer’s Bernhardt is an imposing diva, but she is also jovial, eccentric, unsure and vulnerable. Not surprisingly, Rebeck makes a point of bringing up Bernhardt’s penchant for sleeping in a coffin.

The play includes some other real-life figures including “Cyrano de Bergerac” playwright Edmond Rostand (a sad-sack Jason Butler Harner), actor Constant Coquelin (a gentle Dylan Baker) and artist Alphonse Mucha (a flashy Matthew Saldivar).

The production (directed in an overly aggressive manner by Moritz von Stuelpnagel, “Hand to God”) features a revolving scenic design by Beowulf Boritt and period costumes by Toni-Leslie James. It concludes with a grainy film clip of Bernhardt playing Hamlet during the climactic fencing scene (which can also be found on YouTube).

While the play (which runs about 2½ hours with intermission) contains many witty lines and delves into important topics, it is too discursive for its own good, leading to minimal and muddled plot development. For instance, way too much time is spent lumbering through scenes from “Hamlet” and debating Bernhardt’s notion of rewriting “Hamlet” to make it less poetic. By the second act, the play becomes tiresome and feels long-winded.

One wonders wonder whether Hillary Clinton’s unsuccessful run for the presidency played a role in the development of “Bernhardt/Hamlet.” There is an obvious connection between the hostility faced by both Bernhardt and Clinton as they ventured into traditionally male territory. “Bernhardt/Hamlet” is an inspired, timely and interesting idea for a play — if only it had been better executed.