Reviewed by Patrick Lee
No man should go through life without loving another man. So says F. Scott Fitzgerald to Ernest Hemingway in Allan Knee’s The Jazz Age, which traces the friendship between the two iconic literary legends from their first encounter to their last. Zelda Fitzgerald is the play’s third character but, save for one memorable scene where she puts the moves on her husband’s friend, she is of no serious thematic consequence here (the fact that she opens the play in direct address mode is but early evidence of the drama’s lack of focus). The main event is the two men, whose bond is familiar to anyone in the audience acquainted with their biographies or Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast.
The play continually tells us how important the friendship is to the two writers, but it rarely convinces, mostly because the characterizations are one-dimensional on the page and the actors have little chance to believably flesh them out. Hemingway (played by P.J. Sosko, who fares the best of the three) is written reductively as a growling bear of a man’s man while Fitzgerald (Dana Watkins) is depicted as a romantic milquetoast: anyone who has read what these men actually wrote would be excused for an impatience with the celebrity caricaturization that the authors receive here. Too often, the play feels like nothing more than star-gawking circa the Roaring ‘20’s. The superficiality is especially noticeable when Knee has the men quoting themselves: when Fitzgerald enters a scene announcing that there are no second acts in American lives, it’s hard to imagine that the play's Fitzgerald (like a little lost Boy Scout) could have written that line.
As an exercise in nostalgia of the navel-gazing kind, the play offers some pleasures. As Zelda, Amy Rutberg makes a vibrant something out of a late scene when the character is institutionalized. The play offers few insights into and doesn’t adequately chart Zelda’s mental deterioration (and her plight doesn’t sufficiently reverberate into the scenes between the two men) but the actress does make an impression. There is a scene in which F. Scott confides to Hemingway that he is under-endowed, which leads to some through-the-trousers sizing up: it’s overplayed and not credibly prepared for, but at least the moment provides some voyeuristic kick.
The production visually achieves a pleasurable elegance, thanks in large part to good design work (particularly the lighting and the excellent costuming) and a small musical combo (on stage on the two-tiered set’s upper level) underscoring the play with songbook standards of the era. The music is meant to be decorative, adding an air of sophistication to the proceedings. It isn’t the band’s fault that they often pull focus.
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
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