Probably no one can mine the drama found in encounters between historical figures better than playwright Mark St. Germain. He's imagined quite vividly what could have happened in conversations between Sigmund Freud and C.S. Lewis in "Freud's Last Session" or between Henry Ford and Thomas Edison in "Camping with Henry and Tom" and even between little known historical figures as in the odd friendship that developed between a black civil rights activist and a Ku Klux Klan member in "The Best of Enemies."
And now he's done it again, on the stage at the Barrington Stage Company that bears his name, with an ambitious and fascinating new work titled "Scott and Hem in the Garden of Allah" running now through September 29. Here St. Germain's fertile imagination posits an encounter between friends and literary rivals F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway over the fourth of July in 1937 as Fitzgerald found himself writing unproduced screenplays for Louis B. Mayer while his wife Zelda's continued institutionalization on the other side of the country was draining him financially. Although Fitzgerald would die just a few years later, Hemingway was busy working to sustain his macho literary image while trying to hide a growing depression over his future prospects as a writer, a condition that would indeed haunt him until his untimely death. Little did he know on this summer night that he had yet to produce some of his best writing ("To Have and Have Not," "For Whom the Bell Tolls," and "The Old Man and the Sea") and would nab a Nobel Prize.
The Garden of Allah of the title refers to a series of bungalows on the former estate of notorious screen star Alla Nazimova that in 1937 attract all sorts of celebrity residents, including Dorothy Parker, Tallulah Bankhead and a naked swimming Charles Laughton who are all part of the loud partying outside of Fitzgerald's quarters. Although the evening starts out sanely and cordially between the two men, St. Germain gradually turns this visit into a sort of showdown between the two literary lions, one whose powers have been dimmed by the steady abuse of alcohol and a codependent relationship with a strong woman of questionable sanity and the other plagued by a paralyzing insecurity that leaves him stinging from insults by the likes of William Faulkner and possessed of a rabid jealousy over his fellow writers' abilities to continue to produce.
St. Germain fills his play with luscious references to Laurette Taylor, Gertrude and Alice, and Joe Mankiewicz while the more interesting dialogue explores the nature of the act of writing itself. At Hemingway's insistence, the conversation turns to the difficulty of writing and particularly to mutual speculation over what the future hold for both men. Hemingway quietly worries about the bone-crushing nature of his depression and it's impact on his career while Fitzgerald admits to a lack of ideas, wondering just how many stories does a person have. Even as Hemingway berates the short stories that Fitzgerald writes for magazines to supplement the virtually non-existent residuals from his novels, Hemingway speculates rather glibly that he'll probably end up taking the same way out as his father and uncle, ironically unaware that it will be almost exactly 44 years to the date that "Papa" will ultimately put a shotgun in his mouth and pull the trigger.
At one point, Hemingway offers to give his friend the rights to "The Snows of Kilamanjaro" to develop as a screenplay and film. Fitzgerald, perhaps correctly, takes this as a ploy to prevent him from ever writing another novel again, as he would spend the next several years developing the project. Hemingway, however, claims that in return all he needs is some information on the effectiveness of some of the psychiatric drugs that Zelda has been taking for a story he is working on. Fitzgerald quickly figures out that Hemingway's inquiry is personal, yet suspects his motives even more.
As he did with such finesse in "Freud's Last Session," St. Germain creates an intriguing conversation that is undergirded by almost unnoticeable elements of suspense which help propel the story forward. Fitzgerald is on deadline to finish a screenplay by midnight while being prodded by a no-nonsense MGM secretary in constant contact with the studio. At the same time, she's there to make sure the author of "The Great Gatsby" stays away from the bottle and for the past nine days she apparently has succeeded, thinking that as a fellow alcoholic she can figure out all the traditional hiding places. Of course, Hemingway will have none of that and spends a good portion of the evening cajoling Fitzgerald in joining him for some scotch.
Most of the conversation, however, focuses on Fitzgerald, as Hemingway frequently brings up the forbidden subject of Zelda, accuses Fitzgerald of nastily appropriating some friends' lives as the main characters in "Tender in the Night," and figuratively offers a gut punch by recalling Fitzgerald's attempts to stop the publication of Zelda's diaries since those same stories have shown up in Fitzgerald's work. The gut punches, however, become quite literal when the two men engage in semi-inebriated fisticuffs that shatter glasses, bring down shelves and overturn a couch. Fight coordinator Ryan Winkles certainly earns his consultant's fee with that remarkable choreography.
St. Germain has directed his own play with enviable subtlety. More often than not, a playwright does not have the necessary distance to be able to direct his or her own work, but St. Germain obviously had a definite vision for his work and he carries it off. Set designer David M. Barber has created an atmosphere-filled set that combines the Moorish aspects of the Garden villa with period hints that set the play believably in the late 1930's. Margaret A. McKowen's costumes reflect the more formal "business casual" of the times, while allowing her to create a cowl and dress for Evelyn Montaigne, the secretary. Scott Pinkney's lighting contrasts the bright interior of Fitzgerald's quarters with the lights of Los Angeles and the Hollywoodland sign in a moonlit distance. Jessica Paz's sound captures the gaiety of the wild goings-on elsewhere on the compound, while providing some discreet 30's swing and strings to underline key moments.
The cast is uniformly impressive, with Joey Collins' Fitzgerald receiving most of the author and director's sympathy. Collins conveys the writer's exhaustion and resistance with a resigned nobility, depicting a man clinging to the image of the wealthy and sophisticated traveler and socialite that he and Zelda invented for themselves. His Fitzgerald is aware of his limitations yet resiliently silent about his desperation which he would surely love to further conceal with the help of a hidden vodka bottle.
Ted Koch depicts a Hemingway in his mustachioed male prime, presaging the bear of a man who would appear on magazine covers in the 40's and 50's hunting, fishing and drinking, with a series of women on his arm. Koch shows that Hemingway can be crafty as he tries to ascertain Fitzgerald's condition, while revealing the man's easy bristling as questions about his excessive concentration on his manhood are raised.
Angela Pierce does a divine job as the determined secretary who has more on the line with the completion of Fitzgerald's script than she initially lets on. Pierce comes off as the very picture of Hollywood's idea of the demure yet strong female figure, a woman who is allowed to represent the utmost of attractiveness while constantly being reminded of her place in the Tinseltown hierarchy.
It is quite poignant that one of the most moving scenes in the work revolves around the actual words written by one of the characters--Fitzgerald's remarkable, stirring final paragraph of "Gatsby." Here the line is quoted by Hemingway whose obvious admiration (and jealousy) is quite touching. It is important to remember that Fitzgerald has earlier indicated that in the previous year only 44 copies of all of his novels had been sold with a total income of $13.13. With yet another remake of "Gatsby" lighting up our cinema screens this summer, it's good to know that more people than Ernest Hemingway would eventually acknowledge the power of Fitzgerald's writing.
For tickets call the Barrington Stage Box Office at 413.236.8888 or visit the Barrington Stage website at www.barringtonstageco.org. The St. Germain Stage is located in the Sydelle and Lee Blatt Performing Arts Center at 36 Linden Street in Pittsfield, Mass.
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