BWW Review: The Marriage of Alice B. Toklas by Gertrude Stein Is A Bag of Marvels
There's Alice B. Toklas - as defined by Gertrude Stein - with Picasso, Hemingway, and a coterie of brilliant aesthetes dropping in on the title characters' wedding to one another. The Marriage of Alice B. Toklas by Gertrude Stein is the sort of thing that one chortles through from paragraph to paragraph while unraveling additional meanings until the final period lands. It is a million words a minute and could very well overwhelm the senses should one lose focus for even a moment. It is Gertrude Stein after all, even if it really isn't.
Let us begin again. There's Jan Leslie Harding as Picasso, Mia Katigbak as Gertrude Stein, Grant Neale as Hemingway, and Alyssa Simon as Alice B. Toklas, though not always. With much pretending at being someone who may or may not have been there - and tons of fun puns in this toiling word-play of a fantasy as loopy French farce - our minds are sent into a dizzying dervish of delight as the four main characters battle it out over who was a true genius and what the meaning of meaning amounts to once those geniuses have left the room.
Writer-director Edward Einhorn has put exhaustive scholarship into researching these portrayals: The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, Everybody's Autobiography, Wars I Have Seen, and What is Remembered. He is to be applauded for lovingly crafting a sentimental though never coy valentine to whom was who and whom was what - and how - of the brilliant post-World War I Parisian expatriates whose work serves as the cornerstone of modern culture. While these men's - and only rarely women's - histories are entertainingly unfurled, there is so much to slog through, with so little actually happening, that missing even a beat means losing five or twelve points. That makes this niche material. Thank goodness then for the vivid balls-to-the-walls acting, otherwise this would be a dreary English Literature affair. With the actors - all excellent - quintupling up on roles - sometimes in the same sentence - there is no way for novices to even pretend at understanding. Nor are aficionados guaranteed immunity.
Though always clever, the proceedings risk becoming exhausting, particularly during the second act - following a delightful champagne break - when the characters can't decide whether or not to enact the wedding all over again. Structurally it feels like the typical 2nd Act doldrums: Einhorn does a spectacular job of opening and climaxing the 1st Act; he knows how he wants to close up shop; but he does not know how to get there while maintaining the play's vitality. And so the pace drops. Nearly lethally so.
Even the spark plug of life, Jan Leslie Harding's Picasso, threatens to fall out of the play as she/he ponders changing gears to become something else. Here is the flaw and where having someone other than the author direct the material would have benefited the play. There is much grappling with the idea of fulfilling one's purpose and sticking with a true calling. It's all about marriage and the role one takes in a relationship. This would seem to be the main attraction for Einhorn in penning this play - his program notes allude to his own marriage and the nature of Toklas' and Stein's relationship - and he is deadly serious about it. Unfortunately we are bogged down for far too long with this dreary pondering. Eventually the author recognizes the limit of such stewing and shamelessly reverts the proceedings back to French farcical form to liven things up. It is a total cheat; Einhorn has a point to make and he doesn't mind using his characters as mouthpieces to force us to sit through it. It is a risk that works solely because the actors continue to push toward the end.
Oh but that ending is a beauty. Much of the play is in direct address to the audience, with exits and entrances proclaimed. How lovely then to end with Alice alone speaking directly to us after Gertrude has died. We hear her narrate her final days and see the foreshadowing of the Stein family's disapproval of this 'relationship' come to fruition. Though all is nearly lost, one thing remains: the love that set this whole shebang into motion and the promise that geniuses - and newly converted Christians - will meet again in heaven. You'll have to see the play to unravel that tease. Do so; it is absolutely worth it.
The Marriage of Alice B. Toklas by Gertrude Stein runs through May 28th, 2017 at HERE Arts Center with the following schedule:
Wednesdays to Saturdays at 7PM
Sunday May 21 & 28 at 2pm
HERE Arts Center, is located at 145 6th Ave
Tickets are $25 and can be purchased online HERE.
Or by calling 212-352-3101
The Marriage of Alice B. Toklas by Gertrude Stein is an Untitled Theater Company No. 61 production.