Veteran theatre director Henrik Vogler is dozing after a rehearsal of August Strindberg's 1902 work A Dream Play. He is awakened when Anna, a beautiful young actress, returns to the empty stage looking for her bracelet. She is the daughter of one of Vogler's good friends and has the leading role in the drama.

They discuss the theatre, and the director speaks of his love of actors' "courage and contempt of death, their flight and their ruthless sincerity." Anna keeps fishing for compliments, and it is soon evident she has a crush on Vogler. Then suddenly, she speaks of her hatred for her deceased mother — an actress who played roles even in real life.

Rakel comes on stage; she is middle-aged, an expressive woman who was given only a small part in Vogler's earlier production of A Dream Play. She chides him for humiliating her and no longer believing in her acting abilities. She tries to seduce Vogler, but he is not interested. She then describes her affair with a doctor who is treating her for alcoholism and leaves abruptly.

After the Rehearsal, originally produced for television, is a tightly structured and highly involving work of art. Ingmar Bergman examines theatre, sexuality, aging, and the games people play. Erland Josephson is splendid as the seasoned director who is still exhausted and exhilarated by the theatre and human ambiguity. Lena Olin is very persuasive as Anna, a young woman sorting out the priorites in her career and personal life. And Ingrid Thulin as the self-destructive and volatile Rakel vividly conveys the mid-life crisis of a woman who has fallen apart. Cinematographer Sven Nykvist's close-ups amplify the emotional nuances of the drama.

Once Rakel leaves — her appearance in fact is all in Vogler's mind — the director and Anna resume their talk. She threatens to leave the production to have a baby. He is astounded and angered by her thoughtlessness. Anna shifts gears and reveals her love for Vogler. Together, they imagine what an affair would be like — verbalizing the rhythms of infatuation, living and working together, experiencing fights and jealousy, and finally separating.

In this 72-minute film, the masterful Swedish director brilliantly analyzes the intricate dynamics of male-female sexual politics and leaves us more convinced than ever of the bittersweet ramifications of human love.