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A CurtainUp Review
The Maddening Truth

Look Martha-Miss Gellhorn. All those things--the ex-husbands, the arguments, the people you knew--like it or not, they're what make people interested in you. Make you 'you'.— Peter, when Gellhorn objects to his introducing personal matters into the interview he did with her, instead of sticking strictly to her writing.

Maddening Truth
Lisa Emery as Martha Gellhorn (Photo: Theresa Squire)
The Keen Company is one of several companies that have successfully established themselves by presenting new productions of plays from bygone eras. Under the artistic direction of Carl Forsman the company has been successful enough within its special niche —early 20th century works— to move to a location attracting larger audiences. But Forsman is young and adventurous enough to try something new.

That something new is the world premiere of David Hay' play The Maddening Truth. It's about Martha Gellhorn ( November 8 1908 - February 15 1998), who made her mark as an outstanding war correspondent, starting with the Spanish Civil war. However, despite her long career and many publications and honors, when she died ten years ago, most of the obituary headlines identified her as "Ernest Hemingway's third wife." — Much as she resented that label Hemingway continues to be a literary household name, while far fewer people know Gellhorn or have read her books. A Google search of her name will kick up a very respectable 57,700 items, but follow up with a search for Hemingway and you'll end up with 4,300,000 entries.

Actually Gellhorn had two husbands besides Hemingway and also numerous lovers, and her published writing included essays and novels. The combination of her trailblazing career as war correspondent and her colorful personal life do seem to be the stuff of a juicy biographical drama, so I went to see The Maddening Truth with high hopes. Regretfully, it proved to be a more maddening than marvelous experience. Why maddening? Because what should be a riveting biodrama is too much of the time a dull patchwork of excerpts from Gellhorn's war dispatches, fiction and letters interspersed into brief scenes from her life.

Unfortunately, even with the always attention-worthy Lisa Emery playing Gellhorn, Hay's concept for dramatizing what made her tick as a person and as a writer does not add up to a particularly exciting play. The plot conflict he uses to make this more than a dramatized condensed biography is to introduce a fictional character named Peter Wilkinson who seems to be a composite of all the young writers who were coming to prominence in 1972, just as Gellhorn's star was fading. Hay's uses this fictional character to set up a conflict, not between Gellhorn and the real life characters (Hemingway and long-time lover Laurance Rockefeller), but with Wilkinson, himself a budding novelist who challenges her to write something really personal. While Gellhorn feels betrayed by his interview because it ignores her insistence that it not be about her personal life, that interview leads to her writing Travels With Myself and Another a very personal and genuinely literary book, surprisingly within the genre of travel writing.

The fictional Wilkinson does give the play a plot arc of sorts. The interview he flatters her into doing with him establishes Gellhorn's post mid-career crisis (she's in her 60s in the 1972 opening scene from which the play jumps backward and forward). However, it makes Wilkinson not just a catalyst for the Gellhorn story but a major character and it relegates the two real and more prominent men in Martha's life — Hemingway and Rockefeller— to the status of support players and sounding boards for her problems and opinions. Unfortunately, William Connell's Wilkinson isn't dynamic enough for this to work. He comes off as not especially sympathetic and rather one-note in personality and appearance though, in fairness to the actor, the latter is the director's fault. Gellhorn's suggestion during their first meeting that he would do well to get a haircut is mentioned as having been heeded, but without a smigen of evidence to support it. Yet, the hair business could have easily have been handled by teasing the actor's hair to look a little wilder in his first scene, and using some hair pomade and hair spray to effect a trimmer look when we see him next.

The more sympathetic Richard Bekins does what he can with the underwritten role of Gellhorn's devoted friend and lover, Laurance Rockefeller. When he visits her in her Kenya retreat and wisely suggests that she might actually find something worth writing about in "the kitchen of life— a mountain of utterly mundane distractions" one is tempted to paraphrase "rich as Rockefeller" to "right as Rockefeller."

Terry Layman is excellent as a BBC radio actor but a totally colorless Hemingway. As Layman he is paired with Emery's Gellhorn in acting out one of the stories from her about to be published Travels With Myself and Another. There actually was such a BBC broadcast, but having Gellhorn at the mike is an authorial device for bringing Gellhorn and Wilkinson together for a resolution of sorts to their conflict.

With today's economics limiting the cast of a new play, Mr. Hay can't be blamed for merely referring to some otherwise unseen players in Gellhorn's life (other husbands lovers, friends, acquaintances, and a mother she adored). At any rate, whatever the pros and cons about the ones chosen to inhabit this play, in the end this is Martha Gellhorn's story and, by extension, Lisa Emery's play. She manages to be eminently watchable even as this under-nuanced, standard issue chain smoking career woman to whom Mr. Forsman denies more of a costume change than switching from one well-fitting pants suit to another. (I'm sure Theresa Squire could have designed a caftan to throw over her pants suit at least for the African scene with Rockefeller). The fact that Emery hardly looks to be in her sixties actually may not be so far from fact since Gellhorn is said to have had several face lifts and many not have looked her age.

Beowulf Borritt has created a simple and quite attractive all purpose set design, with a sheer curtain to take the place of doors or doorways, though the play is overburdened with clunky entrances and exits. The major scenic prop, a tree with papers as leaves, is a nice metaphor for the pages and pages of articles, essays, stories and letters that were the children that Martha Gellhorn nourished and that nourished her.

While this season opener lacks the "Keen" touch of previous productions like Tea and Sympathy and The Dining Room, both in terms of the material and the direction, it's a timely prelude to two other Hemingway-related Off-Broadway plays I'll be reviewing —The Jazz Age based on Hemingway's A Moveable Feast and Hemingway's only play, The Fifth Column written when he was covering the Spanish Civil war and having an affair with Gellhorn.

Despite the shortcomings which make calling it maddening irresistible, I'm still keen on the Keen Company, especially with it's next offering, The Conscientious Objector, (also a new play) by Michael Murphy who wrote the provocative Sin (review). Joining the Keen with Mr. Murphy is his previous play's star, the always terrific John Cullum.

Links to recent Keen hits:
The Dining Room
Tea and Sympathy

Written by David Hay
Directed by Carl Forsman
Cast (in order of appearance): William Conne (Peter Wilkinson), Lisa Emery (Martha Gellhorn), Richard Bekin (Laurence Rockefeller), Peter Benson (James Hastings), Terry Layman (Ernest Hemingway and Geoffrey Brooks' Joshua)
Sets: Beowulf Boritt
Costumes: Theresa Square
Lighting: Josh Bradford
Sound: Daniel Baker
Running Time: 1 hour and 45 minutes, including an intermission
Keen Company, Clurman Theater 410 W. 42nd St.
From 1/15/08 to 2/23/08; opening 1/30/08.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at January 25th press preview

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