Villa America, written and directed by Crispin Whittell.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
"...not always easy to be transparent."
Gerald Murphy informs his future wife Sara Wiborg that he wants their marriage to be an open book, with everything they do, everything they feel or think to be available to each other, to be totally transparent. She agrees with him that this would be wise, if not easy. This dialogue happens in scene four of the new play "Villa America" currently on the Nikos Stage at the Williamstown Theatre Festival. Scene four, which is the final scene in the two act play, is set on the beach in East Hampton, New York in 1915. The scenes which precede it, counting backwards to scene one, take place in Antibes in 1923, Antibes in 1926 and East Hampton in 1968. Yes, itís a play that moves backward in time to that point where the tale really begins. When this has been done successfully, which is hardly ever, it is to provide a happy ending that never comes in life to the participants in the tale by providing a happy beginning. It averts the sense of tragedy.
In Villa America, however, tragedy is everything. Its principal characters include the Murphys, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemmingway and Pablo Picasso. There is also Zelda Fitzgerald, but she is never seen or even heard in this play; she is a passive, if essential, character much discussed but never apparent. Without her, scene two - the longest sequence of the play, could never take place.
That is one of the principal flaws of this seriously incomplete play. While no intermission is indicated in the playbill, there is one and, distrubingly, it comes right in the middle of that scene. If you have consulted your program you conclude that the second act begins with scene three, set three years earlier, and the confusion in the dialogue is distracting until you realize that this is just a continuation. A two hour evening, you understand later, is intended as a 90 minute one-act play.
That fact becomes more real when you analyze the play as a whole: there is little drama here, little conflict. It becomes a story of who does Gerald like more, just now, and why. And how transparent are his decisions, his thought-processes in his choices, even to Sara.
Sara is the one character who seems to connect with all of the others. She is the monied lady with the good sense not to commit emotionally to any of the men around her. The men are emotional enough without her, actually. Hemmingway and Fitzgerald, at the beginning of their stellar careers in letters and Murphy with his modern painting skills, Picasso with his overwhelming talent and modest social skills each have their moments with her, but in the case of Ernest and Scott their most potent relationships, with difficult wives, are never seen. Instead they act out with one another and the robust and manly Hemmingway gets the upper hand over the intellectual and effete Fitzgerald.
In scene one, we are given clues to the past as Sara mourns the loss of her husband, revels in her accomplishment in having his work acclaimed, and finds herself lost in the confusion over her misplaced amourous intentions toward Fitzgerald. Not of it makes much difference or sense until we hear the pledge of transparency in scene four. The only conclusion that is a conclusion is that this play, set backwards, might emerge an actual play, a better play, a decent play if it took us forward in time instead. It comes across, at this point in time, as a shallow piece, structured to confuse and not illuminate, with characters who do not develop so much as they defrock. But even with that as its motivation, we never get to the core of the Murphys, who they are and why they are what they are. We only know they existed in a time when great minds were in the developmental stages and that Sara and husband provided the beach on which they soaked up sun. The end.
The cast are wonderful, considering how little other than words they have to work with in this play. Nate Corddry is Scott and he has some powerful moments in the second half of scene two. He handles them well even if his character has grown annoyingly silly by that time. Matthew Bomer is the best of this company at providing the long, hard, sensual gaze. His ultra-masculinity is almost a parody in the playing of Ernest. It is as though the word Macho needed to be invented in 1926 and he had decided to provide the dictionary definition in his personality. The battle between these two men is well delineated, even if it may not be accurate.
David Deblingerís Picasso cannot hold a candle to this seasonís earlier Picasso at Barrington Stage, as played by Thom Christopher. Of course, this is Picasso at an earlier stage, but even so, this is Picasso. Somewhere we should feel the magnetism of this man, and we, sadly, donít feel much of anything.
As Gerald Karl Kenzler has the most difficult role. He must be a man who cannot do much except control the surroundings of his environment. He does it with a quirky, gesture-laden performance that calls up images of a man unsure of his stature, his preference, his decisions. He plays this inner difficulty brilliantly, but leaves us uncertain of even the basic human spirit of the man he portrays.
Sara is played, primarily, by Jennifer Mudge, in an enigmatic, emotionally dry, physically arid manner. If this was Sara Murphy than dozens of books about them and the period in which they lived have been lying to us. Mudge plays the character as written and gives us what this Whittell intends her to be: a pristine goddess who can pass judgements and command attention, but who never gives herself away to anyone other than her husband, and then only when she wishes to delight him.
As the older Sara, and two other delicious characters, Charlotte Booker walks away with the play. She is scene one. She makes Sara in old age into the woman we would like to believe we will know better by the end of the show. "Villa America was your creation," she is told and that may well be correct, but in the reality of what follows it would seem that Villa America was only an image without a backing, without an interior, without anything of value, a movie set flat painted to resemble something in life, but only held up by struts and pegs providing little. Booker has a speech about home, lifted from a letter by Archibald MacLeish which appears in the program. It is wistful and whimsical. It tells us more about Sara than anything that follows.
You may have guessed that this isnít my favorite play, thus far, of the season. Youíd be right.
Jennifer Mudge and Karl Kenzler as Sara and Gerald Murphy; photo: Carol Rosegg
Matthew Bomer as Ernest and Nate Corddry as Scott; photo: Carol Rosegg
Bomer and Mudge; photo: Carol Rosegg
Villa America plays through July 22 on the Nikos Stage at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, in Williamstown, MA. Performances are Tuesday through Sunday. For tickets and complete schedule contact the box office at 413-597-3400.