`Herbert Bracewell'fondly recalls 19th-century theater The Return of Herbert Bracewell Play by Andrew Johns. Starring Milo O'Shea, Frances Sternhagen. Directed by Geraldine Fitzgerald.

``The Return of Herbert Bracewell'' is slight, flavorful, amusing, and sentimental -- a chamber work admirably suited to the intimate Chelsea Playhouse on far West 23rd Street. Andrew Johns's fabrication of theatrical confidences and recollections begins as a solo and ends as a duet. The long opening monologue introduces octogenarian Bracewell (Milo O'Shea), perennial player of what his wife calls ``sheep-dog roles.'' The retired thespian is rehearsing for his comeback, a one-man show that will review his career for a more or less waiting public. With grace and humor, Mr. O'Shea shares Bracewell's nostalgia and relish as the old actor riffles through the treasured anecdotes that embellish theatrical history and myth. Since the time of the play is New Year's Eve in the early 1900s, Herbert is recalling an era when actors truly held the stage. Wandering down memory lane, he reads bits of his old reviews, comments tartly on actors who got the parts he missed, remembers some players' nicknames (like ``Spitting Bull''), and even does a jaunty song and dance. Of Shakespeare's history plays he says, ``Nobody can tell one from the other.'' And of management: ``Very often the weak links are the ones in charge.''

The attic rehearsal is interrupted by the appearance of Florence (Frances Sternhagen), the sharp-tongued younger wife who enjoyed the stardom Herbert never attained. Florence once deserted Herbert for a fellow actor, was taken back and forgiven, and subsequently prevented her husband's relatives from institutionalizing him. The state of their relationship is suggested by the play's subtitle, ``Why Am I Always Alone When I'm With You?''

Florence's proposed contribution to Herbert's comeback brings ``The Return of Herbert Bracewell'' to its gently appealing, if somewhat pat, conclusion. In any case, the pleasures of the performance lie in the skill and delight with which Mr. O'Shea and Miss Sternhagen bring this theatrical scrapbook to life. Even in her briefly donned Lady Teazle chapeau, Miss Sternhagen never overdoes the panache of a star whose flair dazzled no one more than herself.

A program note informs us that the playwright's career has been not unlike that of Herbert. It has included service as an understudy and stage manager for the Broadway production of David Storey's ``Home'' that starred Ralph Richardson and John Gielgud. The association with these legendary acting knights and master raconteurs was apparently not wasted on Mr. Johns.

Geraldine Fitzgerald has staged the comedy with comic observation and affectionate feeling for these player folk and their make-believe world. Even when Mr. Johns tends to overwork a verbal device, Miss Fitzgerald keeps the performance in hand. The picturesque clutter of James Wolk's setting fulfills Florence's description of the attic as a room that ``looks like something Dickens would write.'' Julie Schwolow has costumed the production with theatrical style, and the mellow lighting is by Phil Monat.

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