Monday, March 3, 2008

The Jazz Age

What a disappointment. I was looking forward to this play about Ernest Hemingway and Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald because I have such good memories of discovering those two writers when I was in college. I loved their work and reading about their lives lived on such a large scale. But in this new play by Allan Knee, only Zelda is alive. The men are one-dimensional wimps who don’t seem capable of doing more than pouring another drink and certainly could never have produced some of the most memorable fiction of the 20th century.

Yes, I know both men drank too much and had ego problems -- either too little or too much of it. And I know about the prospect of homosexuality underlying their bravado, but they were also blessed with creativity and the ability to envision characters and stories we never forget. I wish their genius had been presented to balance their extraordinary weaknesses. All we got was vulgar talk of sex and obsession with their manliness, most annoyingly presented with their whose-is-bigger groping of each other’s crotch. The play seemed a whole lot longer than two hours.

Only Zelda, played by Amy Rutberg, was fully diminutional, whether in her glamorous and flirtatious period, or in her decline at the psychiatric hospital where she appeared vulnerable and fragile. The play only worked when she was on stage. Dana Watkins as Fitzgerald was somewhat convincing when with her; PJ Sosko as Hemingway never was. For one thing, Hemingway was a large, robust man, which Sosko is not. But Sosko never even conjured the spirit of a vibrant man; rather he resembled in appearance and behavior a small town insurance salesman.

Mr. Knee had been inspired by Hemingway’s “A Moveable Feast,” and went on to read several biographies about Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Zelda. Unfortunately, he didn’t recreate the atmosphere of “A Moveable Feast,” a book I’ve read two or three times and loved because I could feel Paris through Hemingway’s writing. None of that comes through in this flat production of “The Jazz Age.” For this absence, director Christopher McElroen needs to share some of the blame.

The Jazz Age began previews February 8 at 59E59 Theaters and closed Sunday.

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