New York — Starring Anne Bancroft and Max von Sydow. Play by Tom Kempinski. Directed by William Friedkin.
''Duet for One'' has assembled a sufficiently unusual array of talents to qualify as something of a special occasion. The new drama at the Royale Theater returns Anne Bancroft to New York for the first time since ''Golda'' (1978) and costars her with the excellent Max von Sydow. It marks the Broadway directorial debut of many-credited filmmaker William Friedkin. And it introduces American audiences to British playwright Tom Kempinski.
Mr. Kempinski has written a humanely intended conversation piece. The authentic-seeming case study concerns a forbearing psychotherapist and his tempestuously impatient patient. Such slick personal dramas, with effective roles for leading players, once served the commercial theater and the matinee trade well enough. Nowadays, they are more likely to be encountered in the seething world of daytime TV serials.
The Kempinski duet deals with the reluctant visits of violin virtuoso Stephanie Abrahams (Miss Bancroft) to Dr. Alfred Feldmann (von Sydow). Stephanie has recently become confined to a wheelchair. Her husband has arranged her appointment with the therapist. It soon becomes evident that Stephanie's desperate bravado covers a deep state of depression.
In the course of some frequently stormy sessions, Stephanie gradually confides long suppressed memories and traumas that have been haunting her. They include the early loss of a supportive mother, the hostility of a father who manufactured chocolates and hated music, and the present doubtful state of her marriage to the composer-pianist with whom she once made beautiful music.
''Duet for One'' proceeds as if it had been programmed to serve a gifted actress like the handsome Miss Bancroft. She deals convincingly with Stephanie's sarcasms and rudeness, inner desperation and occasional touching candor, and brief descents into fashionable obscenity. Changes of costume match changes of mood: from fur and finery to drab jeans and sneakers.
The play is well named, since Stephanie is the one who does most of the talking. As the good doctor, Mr. von Sydow is a model listener - a Gibraltar of tact, patience, discreet interrogation, and the determined professionalism that launches Stephanie on the road to recovery.
Mr. Friedkin has guided the succession of brief scenes with shrewd appreciation for their audience effect. Incidental embellishments include some unaccompanied Bach (a Nathan Milstein recording) and a snatch of the Beethoven Violin Concerto to heighten an emotional moment. John Lee Beatty's Manhattan townhouse set and Dennis Parichy's lighting create the mellow elegance for housing a $100-an-hour therapist in the style to which he is accustomed.