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Dewhurst on stage in work recalling life with Eugene O'Neill

My Gene Play by Barbara Gelb. Directed by Andre Arnotte. Starring Colleen Dewhurst. Since Carlotta Monterey O'Neill is the only physical presence in ``My Gene,'' Barbara Gelb might as easily have called her one-woman play, ``A Lot of Carlotta.'' Too much perhaps? That is a matter of opinion. Credit Mrs. Gelb with assembling as much observation of the playwright's last wife and of the O'Neills' stormy relationship as could be contained in a two-hour passage. With the imposing persona of Colleen Dewhurst to do the honors for Carlotta, the new drama at the Public/Martinson Hall is a larger-than-life biographical fragment. Andre Arnotte has staged the piece accordingly.

A room in St. Luke's Hospital in New York City provides the central locale of the retrospective. The time is 1968, and a mentally unstable Carlotta is imagining that she has been committed by the long deceased O'Neill (an action he had actually taken many years before). Through its series of one-sided conversations, ``My Gene'' becomes a montage of illusion and actual events, of things half-remembered and things recalled with stabbing clarity. In the manner of dreams or nightmares, the times are out of order and often out of joint.

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The amplified sound of crashing surf helps set the mood for the several waterfront locales suggested in William Barclay's all-purpose setting, lighted by Phil Monat. As she ranges from hospital confines to the strip of beach and the boardwalks that fringe the Martinson Hall stage, Carlotta calls up a past spent in such places as France, Georgia, California, and Massachusetts. Much of the monologue concerns the demands of establishing and running the households which provided the sanctuaries O'Neill demanded for his writing. ``It was only when he was working, working, working that our lives were serene,'' she says.

The domestic strife that frequently shattered the serenity provides much of the substance of ``My Gene.'' When Carlotta is not being defensive (for instance, about her treatment of Gene's friends), she goes on the offensive. She reminds O'Neill of how she fought for his privacy, typed his playscripts, endured on at least one occasion his violence, and rescued his reputation by allowing a production of ``Long Day's Journey Into Night'' long before he had envisioned its release. If the lady protests too much, ``My Gene'' is, after all, Carlotta's story.

Besides maintaining a remarkable emotional level, Miss Dewhurst handles the script's occasional comic passages with finesse. She responds gracefully to the lighthearted moments when Carlotta remembers how she and Gene danced to the player-piano strains of ``Oh, You Beautiful Doll.'' But these are rare departures from the prevailing tone of self-justification and recrimination - a mood reflected in the loose brown gown designed for the star by Muriel Stockdale.

Besides his ghostly presence throughout Carlotta's ramblings, O'Neill figures in the recital through dialogue excerpts from ``The Hairy Ape,'' ``Strange Interlude,'' ``Long Day's Journey Into Night,'' ``More Stately Mansions,'' and ``A Moon for the Misbegotten.'' In the last-mentioned, Dewhurst reminds the spectator of her overwhelming Josie Hogan.

As a theater piece, ``My Gene'' proves more emotionally intense than intensely dramatic. These illuminating fragments don't quite constitute a play. As it unfolds, Gelb's treatment grows increasingly repetitious. However, as the opportunity for a bravura performance by Dewhurst and as an intimate footnote to some momentous theatrical history, ``My Gene'' deserves a playgoer's respect.

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