Scott and Hem in the Garden of Allah by Mark St. Germain. Directed by Mark St. Germain.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
"Swimming under water and holding your breath.
Staying down so long you might explode."
Ted Koch and Joey Collins; photo: Kevin Sprague
The relationship between famous men is always an intriguing idea, one that playwright Mark St. Germain has often explored in his works. Old friend authors, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway who were often not so friendly to each other and to others as well, are brought together in Hollywood July 4, 1937 to talk over old times, writing concepts, their futures and Scott’s relationship with his wife Zelda. Zelda, naturally, is the elephant in the room as she almost always was and it is this unseen fourth character who, with our anticipation, holds our attention.
Scott is trying to write the film-script for Erich Maria Remarque’s novel "Three Comrades" made into an American film of the same title in 1938 starring Franchot Tone, Robert Taylor, Robert Young and Margaret Sullavan. (He shared writing credits with Edward Paramore, Jr. and Remarque.) His lengthy troubles with it have brought him a short reprieve, an MGM watchdog named Miss Evelyn Montaigne, and a due date of the same evening. He has foresworn booze and sex and an unexpected visit from Hemingway puts all else on a back-burner turned up to high heat. Hemingway’s interference is what gives the play its purpose.
These two literary lions are both at crossroads in their lives. Scott has put his wife into a mental institution in Asheville, North Carolina; Hemingway is keeping one large mountain range away from his current wife. Neither one has a new novel in the works. Hemingway’s popularity is where Fitzgerald’s had been a decade earlier while Scott has only achieved a $13.13 royalty for the previous year based on sales of all of his books put together. Uncomfortable with one another, they are the sort of old pals who can communicate on all levels but aren’t willing to extend a peace-pipe within their friendship. Like many of St. Germain’s pairs of principally literary friends in his previous plays, these two bring out traits and bring up memories long suppressed.
This is the world of Mark St. Germain. Visceral reactions to moderate slams; withheld information suddenly revealed; unexpected confessions and an exaggeration of differences. These elements are the sort one can become accustomed to and sometimes, especially with such famous men whose stories are available everywhere, you can predict the momentary changes in the plot and that is very true here. Some marvelous dialogue and some brilliant lines that will stay in the memory for a long time come out of this play but the honesty so blatantly set before us doesn’t always ring true. It is predictable, but not necessarily understandable.
A physical fight scene, a highlight actually, brings up memories that neither man wants to admit to in front of the other. A peculiar drinking bout, a non-competition, takes Hemingway down a peg as he attempts to humiliate Fitzgerald. Miss Montaigne’s regular onslaught of author insults has no effect on Hemingway and her sharp tongue and her malevolent wit leave Scott cold and unimpressed. In fact, from her first scene onward Miss Evelyn Montaigne is a highly predictable creature right down to her last moments.
Zelda, who upset more applecarts than anyone else in memory is actually a calming influence on these two men as they constantly discuss her, her talents, her abilities and her madwoman fate. When Scott finally does explode into a mad rash of confessions he most likely never spoke aloud in reality the play takes up its internal struggles and leaves us breathless for a short while.
Joey Collins repeats his portrayal of F. Scott Fitzgerald having played the role in the first part of the "rolling" world premiere at the Contemporary American Theatre Festival in July of this year. (He shares the repeater syndrome with Angela Pierce who plays Miss Evelyn Montaigne, with David M. Barber, the set designer, with Margaret A. McKowen the costume designer and with director Mark St. German.) Collins walks the very fine line between hetero and homo sexual being. There is a weakness about his Scott, a pretty-boy protectiveness that felt absolutely right while watching it, but seemed not so right for some reason in retrospect. His voice and his hair and his carefully groomed self contribute, I have no doubt, to this odd set of reactions to what I will call a superb performance of the role as written. His physical reactions to the taunts he bears indicating a seizured softness were wonderfully executed by Collins. His deep felt masculinity in the face of feminine hostility was equally excellent.
Likewise the Hemingway of Ted Koch was a well conceived and delivered character. It was a no-brainer to find this macho masculinity appealingly right on in the actor’s interpretation. Koch has a commanding voice and physical presence and he exudes an undeniable self-confidence at all times, even when Hemingway is doubting himself, a place in the play that may not always leap across the foot lights. He bears a strong resemblance to photos of Hemingway, by the way.
Holding these two men together is the ever-present blonde spectacle that is Miss Evelyn Montaigne, played to a tee by Angela Pierce. Pierce’s character is a woman on the verge of a viable Hollywood career in producing. She is fighting the world she works in to hold on to this chance. Her secretarial/babysitting chores are her effort to maintain that hold on a future. As the catalyst in Scott’s world, she is also the bane of Hemingway’s persistence. Pierce’s hold on both aspects of this work is phenomenal. Pierce is a treasure and a terror all wrapped up in one. This is the finest performance of the piece and possibly the very best written one at that.
This all takes place on a superbly realistic set designed by David M. Barber in strangely but appropriately designed costumes (except that Scott’s smoking jacket should really be a more Noel Coward like dressing gown) by Margaret A. McKowen under the winningly bright lights from the designer Scott Pinkney. Jessica Paz makes sounds of another group of characters, including the voice of Mary Louise Wilson as the distant voice of Dorothy Parker.
One problem with this production may be that author and director are one and the same person. This is a complex look at difficult men with extraordinary secrets about themselves, each other and associates and it might have benefitted from the more distant and indifferent look of a director who hasn’t put every word down personally on paper. What a different man might have demanded from the author is lost at this stage of the play’s development. Well staged, including the fight choreographed by Ryan Winkles, it is with the interpretation of the men, woman and the play that another director might have brought some clarity. We’ll never know.
A fascinating concept piece delivered by talented actors is always a welcome play. One by Mark St. Germain always holds the promise of the finest play of this sort. That the show misses out on a second perspective leaves us with an unfinished work of art, a Picasso perhaps without all of its color or a line not connected to its inevitable conclusion. As always a project worth seeing, but not a completed work, which is too bad.
Angela Pierce; photo: uncredited
Scott and Hem in the Garden of Allah plays through September 29 on the Mark St. Germain stage at the Sydelle and Lee Blatt Performing Arts Center, Barrington Stage Company’s Stage Two, located at 36 Linden Street, Pittsfield MA. For information or tickets call the box office at 413-236 8888 or go on line at www.barringtonstageco.org.