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A CurtainUp Berkshire Review
Scott and Hem in the Garden of Allah
By Elyse Sommer
Sigmund Freud and C. S. Lewis of Freud's Last Session , one of Barrington Stage Company's biggest hits (many extensions in Pittsfield a long runnin New York and productionsall over the world) had widely different beliefs, they were neither friends or enemies. But that portmanteau coinage perfectly fits this new play about Fitzgerald and Hemingway at a critical juncture of their literary careers and personal lives. Their friendship bloomed during their expatriate days in the '20s when the already successful Fitzgerald generously helped the still lesser known Hemingway to become part of the famous editor Maxwell Perkins' stable of literary lions. It cooled in the years that followed, when Hemingway's reputation soared and Fitzgerald was at a point were he seemed unlikely to ever write another novel with the star power of The Great Gatsby.
Mr. St. Germaine clearly has a feel for using well known and much written about details pertaining to world renowned men and working them into dramas that hold our attention even though the result is essentially a conversational debate. Though mere slices from these dramaticaly paired lives, we come away with lots of ideas to chew over.
Scott and Hem in the Garden of Allah is no exception. While Lewis wasn't quite as famous as Freud, both Fitzgerald and Hemingway rank high on the list of accomplished men whose names ring an instant bell. Their work and though perhaps not read as much these days as before remain in print. The Great Gatsby especially has maintained its currency with repeated attempts to get it right as a film. There are also the avante-garde Elevator Repair Service company's word-for-word reenactments of The Great Gatsby and The Sun Also Rises ( Review of Fitzgerald's novel and Review of Hengway's .
There's also no shortage of facts to support St. Germaine's imagined meeting and its unpacking of the men's personal and professional past and future and the dynamic between them: Biographies, autobiographies, published and unpublished letters — so many that Fitzgerald and Hemingway watchers are unlikely to learn anything new. That said, however, Scott and Hem in the Garden of Allah rises above the too familiar with a script chock full of terrific dialogue and enlivened by cleverly inserted name dropping (Picasso, Gertrude Stein, Dorothy Parker, Gerald and Sara Murphy,and more).
To give his "war story" dramatic tension and structure, St. Germain has Fitzgerald sequestered with a tough studio assistant instructed by Louis B. Mayer to keep him sober and working on a screen play of Maria Remarque's novel Three Comrades while worrying about having done the right thing to institutionalize his beloved wife Zelda.
Though never seen, Zelda is an ever present ghost haunting both her husband and Scott and Hemingway and her madness and suicidal tendencies create some of the tensest moments during Hemingway's visit. That visit is prompted by his actually being in town for a screening of a documentary about the Spanish Civil War. The plot, such as it is, entails reminiscences, discussions about writing, fame, gender, and Hemingway's trying to badger Fitzgerald into resuming his more serious writing even though he declares that he's "left the game" that in the past year earned him a grand total of less than $20 in royalties.
One of the best new wrinkles to the playwright's paired discussion plays genre is the addition of a third character, the sarcastic studio watchdog Miss Evelyn Montaigne who, as superbly played by Angela Pierce, is an entertaining and important Scott-Hem go-between. Her prevenint Hemingway's visit from disrupting Fitzgerald's completion of the screenplay is also crucial to her own ambitions to rise out of mostly secretarial chores to a real career in a still sexist Hollywood.
Pierce's gorgeous harridan has been given the play's sharpest lines. And though her final scene with Collins's Fitzgerald is somewhat too abrupt and out of character, viewers familiar with the Fitzgerald legend may well see this as a metamorphoses of Montaignee into Sheila Graham, the gossip columnist who actually lived with Fitzgerald during his Hollywood days.
While Pierce's blonde bombshell is Scott and Hem in the Garden of Allah's scene stealer and the play's most original and best developed character, that's not to say that the actors playing the title characters don't inhabit them with subtlety and believability. Joey Collins is like Pierce is reprising his Scott from the play's first production at the Contemporary American Theatre Festival's first production in Sheperdstown, West Virgia (CATO actually commissioned the play, and Barrington Stage has extended it into a 2-way world premiere). Ted Koch's Hemingway makes for a powerful contrast to Collins's gentler more soft-spoken Scott. Koch actually looks a lot like the real Hemingway.
Though playwrights directing their own plays often turns out to be a less than ideal arrangement, in this case St. Germain wears his two hats without mishap. He keeps things moving along briskly and is strongly supported by David M. Barber and Margaret A. McKowen's period perfect scenery and costumes. Strong contributions are also z by lighting and sound designers Scott Pinkney Jessica Paz, and fight Ryan Winkle expertly navigates the fight scene that culminates wotj a decidedly unfriendly climax to Hemingway's visit.
I'm not sure this play will have the "legs" of Freud's Last Session, but it's entertaining, well written and acted, and well worth a visit to Pittsfield. Of course, interesting as these men were, it's not a bad idea to pay tribute to their outstanding contribution to literature by re-reading some of their work.