BWW Reviews: Sparks fly in SCOTT AND HEM IN THE GARDEN OF ALLAH
Mark St.Germain has a close relationship with Barrington Stage Company (BSC). Its audiences are known for their intellectual curiousity and have taken the playwright to heart. They love his ability to create fascinating works for the stage by bring historical fiction to life. His last five plays began there, including Freud's Last Sesson, an imagined meeting between him and C.S. Lewis, The Best of Enemies a tale of a Ku Klux Klan leader and an African American activist, and his very popular play about Dr. Ruth Westheimer.
With SCOTT AND HEM IN THE GARDEN OF ALLAH we can add another play of his to those which bring us new perspectives about familiar characters. Once again the playwright turbo-charges our imaginations.
Last night his newest entry SCOTT AND HEM IN THE GARDEN OF ALLAH received an updated production, having originally being commissioned and showcased at the Contemporary American Theatre Festival in Shepherdtown, WV earlier this summer. Since the Shephead University festival, he has done some snipping and rewrites - before beginning rehearsals here in the Berkshires of Massachusetts.
St. Germain is a prolific playwright with a real knack for compelling stories. Usually he bases them on legendary or fictional incidents between colorful characters. It is a formula that has proven successful most of the time. St. Germain is an Associate Artist of BSC, and a veteran writer for television and film which he has abandoned in favor of the stage.
St. Germain does extensive research before undertaking a new play, and the author has the knack to dress up delicious nuggets of fact with equal parts of theatricality and truth. While both F.Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway are well known and extensively profiled literary giants, their portmanteau reputation as frenemies is often more legend and speculation than documented fact. That both had drinking problems is of course well known and as it turns out also central to the story St. Germain has put on stage.
His setup is simple: It's July 4, 1937 and Fitzgerald (Joey Collins) is in an apartment in the Garden of Allah complex in West Hollywood and under orders to finish a film script for Louis B. Mayer by midnight. He is under the watchful eye of Mayer's personal assistant Miss Evelyn Montaigne (Angela Pierce) who reviews and types each section as it is finished. Scottie's career at this point is in decline and he has been drinking a lot. When the monitor is alone, she checks the room for hidden bottles of liquor. As a condition of his $1,000 a week contract, Fitzgerald has been given strict orders not to drink, and so he has reached day nine of sobriety. Outside we can hear revelers celebrating the Fourth, and Tallulah Bankhead is running around naked while Dorothy Parker is encouraging everyone to join the fun.
There's a knock at the door, Miss Montaine opens it to see Ernest Hemingway (Ted Koch) who she tries to rebuff, but to no avail. This scene is hilarious as the secretary deliberately calls him Mr Hemmings and pretends to not know who the legendary writer is. Fitzgerald returns to find his old friend, and welcomes him, while the monitor is forced to acquiesce to a visit.
Within minutes, Hemingway produces a pint of liquor, and pours himself a glass, managing to give it a quick gourmet-like sniff in the briefest of instants before it is downed. Fitzgerald resists, and continues to drink a non-alcoholic concoction he has found does the job for him.
Playing the drinker on stage is a tough job for both actors and playwrights, especially when the slide into drunkenness takes place ever so slowly over the period of an hour or so. The subtle changes in Ted Koch's Hemingway speech and attitude were wonderfully subtle, as was Joey Collins increasing impatience with his unexpected guest. For as Hemingway drank, Fitzgerald was doing what is called "budding" or building up to a drink. The dialogue becomes sharper, the mistrust deeper and the resentments more exposed as Scott and Hem get around to talking about what is really on their minds, and their individual fears, doubts and insecurities are revealed. At the root of their malaise lay uncertainties about sanity, sexuality and success.
Oddly, at the time this play takes place in 1937 Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob were in Akron having their first success with Alcoholics Anonymous, though the organization and "big book" detailing methods of coping with the disease were still a year away. Too, the issues of homosexuality were not yet acknowledged by the general population, though artists, writers and intellectuals with probing minds certainly had a far more detailed understanding than the average person of that decade. Likewise, the prognosis and treatments for mental problems mostly consisted of institutionalization - as happened to Zelda Fitzgerald - or the brutal and crude methods of shock therapy and frontal lobotomies.
St. Germain touches on many of these issues in the play as Scott and Hem navigate these waters, bobbing and weaving around the truth as they go along. The play captures the forthright manner in which the limited knowledge of the time was utilized by the two writers who attempt to make sense of it all even as they often are in denial.
As Fitzgerald, Collins captured the writers insouciance and volatility, his conflicts and paranoia with remarkable agility. As the conversations of these two giants ebb and flow from the most mundane dissections to the edge of a personal abyss, raw nerves are often jolted, and two-thirds of the way through the play the two engage in a full out fist fight complete with flying books, glasses and furniture that is brilliantly staged by Ryan Winkles and catches the audience by complete surprise. After the battle ends in a draw, the two protagonists came close to a sensual embrace and kiss, though Hemingway's macho insecurity and Fitzgeralds deeply repressed desires were not allowed to fully blossom.
There is no doubt that the two authors are reason for St. Germain's play, but the regular appearance of Miss Montaigne provides both stability, comic relief and a way to get back on course when needed. Early on Hemingway asks her if she "needs a hand" as she moves the typewriter. Looking over at him, he begins to applaud. "I hope to God you don't write comedy," she says to him acidly.
Not that Scott and Hem had any shortage of zingers themselves. As the discussion frequently turned to Zelda Fitzgerald, she seemed to be a fourth presence often invoked by Scott. Hem was having none of it: "Zelda's opinions are about as useful as brakes on a canoe," he says at one point.
The production as designed by David M. Barber (sets) and Scott Pinkney (lights) is handsome, sprawling from wall to wall in the St. Germain theatre, with some potted palms strategically placed near the audience entrance to help set the mood and define the playing area. Pinkney also creates the holiday fireworks effects, and with sound designer Jessica Paz delivers a total party atmosphere, right down to Mary Louise Wilson providing the distant voice of Dorothy Parker.
With St. Germain acting as director, this is a rare chance to see Scott and Hem as close to the author's idealized vision as you can get. As such, the two titans of 1930's literature come across as incredibly complicated men who never revealed themselves to others as completely as they did to each other. Full of inconsistencies and conflicts in their own personalities, St.Germain has painted a picture of the two tortured souls that is far more complex than one might expect. While I have never been much of a fan of their fiction - I used to keep Tender is the Night on my bed stand and if insomnia stuck, I would read a few pages and quickly nod off . Still I have enjoyed their legends and the cult of personality that has been built up around them. SCOTT AND HEM IN THE GARDEN OF ALLAH captures the imagined verbal swordplay with enough volleys and thrusts to keep any audience thoroughly engaged and delighted.
As Scott and Hem engage in their fractious debate onstage, those of us in the audience enjoy the sparks they create in another memorable evening of theatre from Mark St. Germain. I have said little about the story itself since in the end, there is a twist, one that is best left for you to discover for yourself.
Barrington Stage Company presents SCOTT AND HEM IN THE GARDEN OF ALLAH by Mark St. Germain, Sets by David M.Barber, Costumes by Margaret A. McKowen, Lights by Scott Pinkney, Sound by Jessica Paz, Fight Choreography by Ryan Winkles, Production Stage Manager - Lori M. Doyle; Press Representative - Charlie Siedenburg; Director of Production - Jeff Roudabush; Directed by Mark St. Germain. Cast: Miss Evelyn Montaigne - Angela Pierce; F. Scott Fitzgerald - Joey Collins; Ernest Hemingway - Ted Koch. Aug. 15 - Sept. 29, 2013. About 90 Minutes, no intermission. St. Germain Stage of the Sydelle and Lee Blatt Performing Arts Center, Linden Street, Pittsfield, MA. barringtonstageco.org 413-236-8888.