Those looking for insight into the minds that created some of the Twentieth Century's greatest literature won't find it in Allan Knee's paint-by-numbers bioplay.
photo: Ryan Jensen
Reviewed by Cameron Kelsall
Writing any kind of fiction based on the lives of real people is an incredibly ambitious prospect, especially when the subjects are three of the most well-known (and overly mythologized) literary figures of all time. Someone with very little historical knowledge would probably be able to tell you that F. Scott Fitzgerald was a genius broken by alcohol; that his wife, Zelda Sayre, was an intensely passionate woman crippled by madness; and that Ernest Hemingway was a malcontented iconoclast eventually done in by his own grim feelings towards human experience. In his new play, The Jazz Age, Allan Knee regrettably does not stray far from these familiar stereotypes as he attempts to convey the inner workings of these three lost souls who tried to create a new Romantic era at the epoch of high modernism.
We are first introduced to Scott (Dana Watkins) and Zelda (Amy Rutberg) at a Southern dance; the attraction is instantaneous, although Zelda does not want to acknowledge it. She attempts to resist the advances of this young soldier who has just sold his first novel to Scribner's, believing him to be "very conceited and far too pretty for a man," but by the end of this initial interaction it is clear that they belong with, and to, each other. They marry quickly and soon begin enjoying the expatriate life in 1920s Paris.
When they reach Europe in the next scene, Scott is an established literary celebrity and decides to use his influence to get Ernest Hemingway (PJ Sosko), whom he reveres, published by the same house. The latter writer, fiercely proud and unwilling to waver when it comes to his creations, will have none of it. A major juxtaposition--the uncomfortably close relationship between fame and integrity, and the lengths one must go to to achieve either or both--is made here, and although the men form a strong, almost romantic bond, this essential divide pervades their subsequent scenes together, as well as Scott's relationship with his wife, who longs to make her own mark.
Unfortunately, the two actors who portray these titans of literature barely rise above the level of caricature. Mr. Watkins, overly fey and chatty, barely registers any strong emotions as a man who is eventually done in by his emotions. Where he should present the persona of a man besotted by drink and rage at his beloved wife's countless infidelities, he comes across more like a friendly accountant whose cat has just died. The inner demons just aren't there, and even at his most self-destructive, he's still essentially a boy scout. Likewise, Mr. Sosko's reading of the great alpha-male of American letters is gruff and nothing more. The reason for his constant tough front is never explained, and when the drama calls for a breakdown or moments of genuine pathos, it feels fake.
By contrast, Ms. Rutberg is a revelation, smartly playing Zelda as neither a siren nor a harpy, but rather an intensely bright and sexual woman who strongly desires a life removed from what is considered ordinary. The madness that she has become known for--she spent the final years of her life in a sanitarium--creeps in quietly and appropriately and builds to a chilling crescendo. Ms. Rutberg is an actress who knows how to use her body to project what is deep within her soul; a scene at the top of Act Two, a failed seduction of Hemingway, who openly disdains her, is particularly haunting.
The major trouble with Mr. Knee's writing style is that it is immensely limited: when it isn't weak, it feels overly forced. He relies too heavily on direct address--the most overused, and often misused, modern theatrical conceit--to move the plot forward, while his long scenes barely scratch the surface of the characters' relationship to each other and their world. Much of the text is filled with exceedingly aware dialogue (Scott refers to Zelda as his "magnificient flapper" and claims captivation with the elderly because of their "seasoned faces") that conveys little meaning or true feeling. There is scant evidence of the new world that these three set out to create, and why it would still be considered fascinating today. This Jazz Age, unfortunately, is as unappealing as warm gin and as lifeless as a page of sheet music left unplayed.
The Jazz Age
Theater B at 59E59 Theaters (59 E. 59th Street)
Performances (through March 2): Tuesday-Friday at 8:15; Saturday at 2:15 and 8:15; Sunday at 3:15
Running time: 2 hours, with one 15-minute intermission
According to Lincoln Center's new LCT3 project at its slogan, it takes "New Audiences for New Artists." It also takes new critics, hence the establishment of Theater Talk's New Theater Corps in 2005, a way for up-and-coming theater writers and eager new theatergoers to get exposure to the ever-growing theater scene in New York City. Writers for the New Theater Corps are given the opportunity to immerse themselves in the off-off and off-Broadway theater scene, learning and giving back high-quality reviews at the same time. Driven by a passion and love of the arts, the New Theater Corps aims to identify, support, and grow the arts community, one show and one person at a time.