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.