Washington Stage Guild’s production of Memoir, a play by John Murrell about the legendary French actress Sarah Bernhardt, is a mess and a tangle, no question—a lump of coal in the critic’s stocking. But it’s not the kind of self-important, overambitious disaster that would be satisfying to tear into. And it’s definitely not a show that begins promisingly and then takes a couple of quietly fatal wrong turns, leaving the members of the audience, as they’re gathering their coats, to puzzle over what might have been. No, Memoir is modest and ill-fated right from the start.

The play includes just two characters: Bernhardt (Jewell Robinson) and Georges Pitou (Bill Largess), her assistant—or, to use the new $10 word I picked up by reading the program notes, her amanuensis, a person hired to take dictation. It’s set in 1922 at Les Poulains, Bernhardt’s estate off the coast of Brittany. All the action takes place on a patch of lawn between her house and the sea. Bernhardt is 77, just a few months away from her death. She’s already lost one of her legs, amputated above the knee in 1915 after a fall from the stage years earlier. She’s already taken on a string of famous male roles—from Hamlet to Tartuffe—in Europe and finished a farewell American tour, and she’s already performed, from a sitting position, for French troops near the front lines of World War I, for which she was awarded the Legion of Honor.

The curtain comes up on an unrelentingly hot day; Bernhardt, who in this play at least has a gift for pummeling, aggressive language, is requesting a parasol to protect her from the “fist” of the sun. She and Pitou are working on the second volume of her memoirs. Here’s where the word amanuensis falls short as a description of Pitou’s role. Bernhardt is unable to remember the details of the most important scenes in her life without acting them out, without inventing what she calls, in a mixed metaphor typical of Murrell’s overheated script, “a game to jog my flickering memory.”

Because of this, Pitou becomes as much fellow cast member as clerk to the great actress. In a charade that is apparently a frequent one for the pair, he at first refuses and then takes on with gusto the parts of Bernhardt’s mother and husband and a number of would-be lovers. Most entertainingly, he chomps on the end of his fountain pen to suggest a lecherous, cigar-smoking American who can’t get enough of the phrase “goddamned bloody hell.” Then, once Bernhardt gets fully into character and begins spilling juicy details, Pitou slyly removes the pen from between his teeth and begins to take notes, jumping back into the acting when Bernhardt threatens to bring a long soliloquy to a close. It’s the Stella Adler school of oral history.

From the very first scene, you can tell that director Morgan Duncan is aiming for a quaint, elegiac naturalism, interrupted by brief storms of emotional revelation. The costumes, by William Pucilowsky, are period pieces in muted pastels. Tracie Duncan’s set is a simple arrangement of chaise longue, writing desk, and stone bench, all set on a turquoise rug to suggest thick grass rolling to the beach. There are also a gramophone and a bar topped with containers of whiskey- and cognac-colored liquids.

Sometimes the period detail seems a bit too detailed. When Bernhardt begins talking about a long-ago production of Phèdre she appeared in—just to pick one example—she pulls out a worn program from the show. The words “Phèdre” and “Sarah Bernhardt” are clearly printed on its cover. This touch strikes me as perfectly wrong for a production that revolves around a woman who prizes fevered imagination and proclaims about her acting skills, “I had only my eyes. Everything else I had to invent.”

And even the naturalism goes awry pretty quickly. In the first few minutes, Bernhardt fumbles to put a record on the gramophone, just inches from the first row of seats. Only the record doesn’t spin: The music comes pouring out of speakers on the opposite wall. Later on, the screech that’s meant to accompany Bernhardt’s gesture of wrenching the needle from a record comes about five minutes too late. In a surrealist or absurdist production, these little mistakes wouldn’t matter; but in a setting of nostalgic realism like this one, as Pitou puts it, “Accuracy matters to some of us.”

Speaking of our amanuensis, his role seems to me a completely thankless one. As written, he’s whiny and officious, not to mention too perfectly Bernhardt’s foil, cold where she is hot and careful where she’s reckless. While she falls again and again into an actorly dream state, he files away her memories alphabetically: Stories about her mother go under P, for Parental, subset M, Maternal. Largess seems only too happy to play enthusiastically to those extremes, shrieking when Pitou is worked up and mumbling when he’s reflective. And he makes Pitou way too effeminate for a man (apparently thought not conclusively a heterosexual) who’s scandalized by the mere mention of Oscar Wilde’s name.

But the real problem is Robinson’s performance as Bernhardt. This is a gigantic part, overwhelming and overwritten, and you feel sorry for Robinson as she struggles to bring it under control. Her footing throughout is too unsure to allow any real traction. Largess is sometimes nimble enough to play along with Robinson’s creative line readings, but for most of the night I saw the play, the two actors were tripping all over each other’s cues. Both looked less than thrilled with the way things had gone when they came out to take their bows.

There are moments when the show comes together. There’s an effective tableau right before intermission when Bernhardt holds the parasol close above her head, for once hiding herself away, and Pitou lifts the gramophone to take it inside and holds it aloft in her direction, like a giant ear struggling to hear. And Pitou’s long monologue about an embarrassing sexual experience—a story that, despite his reluctance to tell it, thoroughly endears him to Bernhardt—finally pulls the audience completely into the action.

At other times, though, when the show begins to click and both actors are in control, you catch a glimpse of what the production is aiming for—and realize, with an inner groan, that it’s simple melodrama. During the more emotional speeches, as the lights come down and rapturous music cascades from the speakers, you’re almost glad Duncan’s vision is so often frustrated by half-remembered monologues. In other words, if the show had been better, it might have been worse. CP