SHEPHERDSTOWN, W. Va., July 18, 2013 — Lit crit fans will greatly enjoy “Scott and Hem in the Garden of Allah,” the third of the five offerings we’re covering at this year’s Contemporary American Theater Festival which runs through the end of this month. You could fairly regard this play, written and directed by Mark St. Germain as a conjectural episode in American literary history.
The title of the play obviously refers to legendary Lost Generation American novelists and short story writers F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway. They’ve had their critical ups and downs since the Roaring ‘20s and not-so-roaring ‘30s. But both authors seem to have ultimately withstood the test of time, Fitzgerald for his haunting portrayals of the young and the wealthy of his day and Hemingway for his hyper Y-chromosome tales of the adventure and romance that occur as interludes among episodes of war, hunting and fishing.
Each author drank to excess, with Scott’s problem initially more obvious than Hemingway’s. Both had plenty of trouble with women, too. Fitzgerald’s troubled marriage to Zelda, a highly intelligent but increasingly unstable Southern belle is a separate legend in and of itself; while Hemingway’s serial marriages to wildly differing members of the opposite sex indicated, ironically, that his intensely male persona had some very real issues when dealing with the other half of the human race.
Both authors won literary fame relatively early in life, Fitzgerald for his novels and tales of the Jazz Age portraying beautiful people, artists, and impossibly wealthy pre-jet jet-setters; Hemingway for his terse, adventurous stories told with incredible immediacy and disarming simplicity adapted from the crisp, intense, journalistic style he’d developed as a war correspondent for the old “Kansas City Star.”
But by the time we encounter both author’s in Mr. St. Germain’s play, Scott’s career is in a severe decline brought about by his heavy drinking and Zelda’s badly deteriorating condition. Meanwhile, Hemingway is still riding high with a succession of hot new novels aided and abetted by his constant public relations campaign via popular magazines. Both authors, while nominally friends, are still intensely competitive. But Hemingway, always noted for his cruel streak, tended to be increasingly dismissive of the fading Fitzgerald who, by this time, had decamped from the East Coast to Hollywood to toil in the iffy but lucrative world of screenwriting for the movies.
The play imagines a meeting that may or may not have taken place in “The Garden of Allah,” an exotic if slightly seedy apartment hotel frequented by writers, actors either on the way up or on the way down, plus a kaleidoscope of entertainers and Hollywood hangers on, all of whom loved to party on as frequently and shamelessly as possible.
Fitzgerald (portrayed by Joey Collins) is holed up in the Garden of Allah, on the wagon once again and desperately attempting to find enough inspiration to complete a script, goaded on by his secretary-minder, a sharp but brisk and sarcastic industry hack he calls “Miss Montaigne” (Angela Pierce). As the pressure mounts, Hemingway (Rod Brogan) makes an inopportune appearance, imposing on Scott’s instinctive hospitality and incurring the wrath of Miss Montaigne who wants to get the script finished and out before both she and Fitz get the axe.
What follows is a battle of wits and observations between the two authors that waxes and wanes in spite of Miss M’s best efforts. Non-lit fans might find these volatile exchanges occasionally tedious. But playwright St. Germain has an instinctive grasp of these two writerly frenemies and offers an incredibly insightful look into their intensely personal dynamic, much of which seems to involve Hemingway’s cruel yet natural sideways efforts to get Scott back into the gin bottle again.
This is a play whose pleasures involve revisiting old friends, perhaps made move timely for us by the most recent attempt, this summer, to film a definitive version of Fitzgerald’s novel “The Great Gatsby.” (Which effort, BTW, this time by Baz Luhrmann, failed once again, albeit spectacularly.) It’s a play that doesn’t particularly go anywhere except to its inevitable short-term conclusion (which we won’t spoil for you here). But it’s also a play where words, psychology, interpersonal relationships, and the delicacy of friendship and competition get quite an elegant workout.
Mr. St. Germain has an excellent feel for the period in question, and clearly possesses a superb understanding of both authors, their strained relationship, and the widely varying nature of their respective literary outputs.
All three actors perform superbly, with Mssrs. Brogan and Collins inhabiting their characters to an uncanny degree. Although Ms. Pierce’s Ms. Brogan seems initially to be an insignificant third wheel—and indeed, although her character is entirely imaginary—Ms. Pierce’s portrayal inserts just the right amount of extra spin into the proceedings to bring out each writer’s worst tendencies, heightening the tension and personal drama still further.
As directed by the playwright, all three present a brief, seamless scenario that extracts, to a surprisingly effective degree, the essence of two famous American authors at a critical period of time. It’s a fine effort in this very fine year for CATF.
Rating: *** (Three stars out of four.)
For tickets, directions and information on this and other CATF plays, visit the CATF website here.
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