Damian Lewis, Lily Rabe Portray Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor in 'Cleopatra'-Based Play

Steven Polletta for The New Yorker
Daniel Gerroll, Damian Lewis, Lily Rabe and Robert Petkoff at the first public reading of 'Cleo'

Directed by Bob Balaban and penned by 'The New Yorker's' Lawrence Wright, 'Cleo' peeks behind the scenes of the expensive epic where the two stars began their scandalous love affair.

Cleopatra remains one of the most fiery and entertaining epics in Hollywood history — both onscreen and off. Now, a new play that explores the expensive, embattled film’s behind-the-scenes scandal between stars Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton has made its public debut.

"What you’re going to hear is the 55th draft," said The New Yorker staff writer Lawrence Wright of his play Cleo to its first audience on Sunday morning in New York City during the magazine’s annual festival. And after discouraging the Directors Guild Theater ticket-holders from using their phones during the performance, Wright added, in reference to his exposé on the topic, "The magazine has thoughtfully placed Scientologists around the auditorium if you violate any of those things!"

Prefaced by the trailer for the original 1963 film played on a large screen, the Bob Balaban-directed reading starred Damian Lewis as Burton and Lily Rabe as Taylor. The clever, adage-filled script spanned from just before Burton’s arrival until the troubled production’s final day on set, and between shooting the film’s most memorable scenes, the two stars were portrayed discussing their views on love, marriage, talent and fame while inside each other’s trailers.

Amid moments of heated passion and heartbreak, Lewis engaged the audience with his drunken, charismatic performance, as Rabe did with Taylor’s distinguished laugh. Robert Petkoff occasionally stood to sing as Taylor’s fourth husband, Eddie Fisher, and Daniel Gerroll hit his punchlines as co-star Rex Harrison. Bruce Altman played director Joseph Mankiewicz, Katherine Leask read for then-production assistant Rosemary Matthews, and Robert Vaughn portrayed producer Walter Wanger, as the trio worked to salvage the project after the previous director resigned and tried to keep their scandalous stars under control, all without bankrupting 20th Century Fox.

From left: moderator Shira Gregory, Robert Vaughn, Daniel Gerroll, Damian Lewis, Lily Rabe, Robert Petkoff, Bruce Altman, Katherine Leask