In this strangely titled production that packs a wallop, writer and director Mark St. Germain sets up an imagined encounter between F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway. The world premiere script is remarkably savvy, complete with beats that ebb and flow with a natural ease.
… the Garden of Allah is not a middle Eastern reference but refers to an inexpensive though still glamorous apartment complex just within the boundaries of Hollywood, known for its frolicking and wild parties among celebrities who frequented and lived there. It’s where F. Scott is being sequestered to put finishing touches on a screenplay for MGM—he’s on a crunched deadline, and Miss Montaigne is committed to getting the script in on time since their livelihoods are at stake.
In a provocative beginning, a gorgeous Angela Pierce as Miss Montaigne sits typing away on an old fashioned Smith Corona, the bygone sounds of clicking and clacking filling the stage with its own character. It takes a strong personae to serve as foil between two literary giants battling out their rule-the-roost hierarchy and Pierce is just that. She commands attention just sitting and typing, and when she slowly rises to shush the ruckus out the window, she could stop traffic.
It doesn’t hurt that she shouts out to the crowd that she’s the personal assistant to Mr. Mayer, as in Metro, Golden–the noise sudden quiets, so we know that she’s got pull. Joey Collins enters as F. Scott and they establish the importance of getting the project completed – No Booze allowed. Once Rod Brogan barrels in as Hemingway, commanding attention and used to getting it, we’re off to the races with defined characters, terrific dialog, and fine actors who know how to deliver.
Collins is rather mildly mannered as F. Scott Fitzgerald, but he balances nicely with Brogan who roars about like an unleashed bull in the china shop while displaying subtle glimpses of sweetness, a tour de force performance.
The script covers a lot of territory with ease as the two literary giants share their successes and failures with unflinching candor. They both have written their best works and achieved acclaim and fame, but only fleetingly, so they continue to wrestle with their demons to stay on top of, or at least ahead of, the pack.
F. Scott is unwaveringly protective of his wife, the notorious Zelda, a provocative artist in her own right, who Hemingway dismisses with zingers and disdain every chance he gets. The only somewhat ineffective moment that I observed was when Collins, as F. Scott, responded too quickly to one of Hemingway’s pot shots without letting us know it really registered. Hemingway’s slamming remark that all he did was disparage Zelda, at least he didn’t commit her, deserves at least a modicum of cognition before Scott responds that it was for her own good. It’s a powerful line that deserves more than what I saw opening night.
The script is deliciously dishy, including a back-handed reference to Dorothy Parker, the notorious witty satirist of the day, having her cheerfully announce that Amelia Earhart had been found, only to renounce the headline within seconds—punked! There’s a similar swipe at a skinny dipping Tallulah Bankhead and entire sequences devoted to Gertrude Stein of the repetitive rose fame. These gossipy tidbits humanize these icons by making us giggling chums behind the scenes.
Scott and Hem in the Garden of Allah
Runs in repertory
through July 28
Contemporary American Theater Festival
Marinoff Theater, Center for Contemporary Arts/II
62 West Campus Drive
Shepherdstown, West Virginia
2 hours with 1 intermission
Details and tickets
Also, the director’s handiwork can be seen in shaping a loud raucous Hemingway who is an obnoxious bully on the outside, but layered enough to show his vulnerable side. The script is filled with zingers that Brogan as Hemingway delivers with a well-timed punch. For example his harsh, sexist asides to Miss Montaigne would produce a quiver in an uninitiated maiden, but her character has seen it all, been to Hell and back and can sling it with the best of them resulting in match point verbal volleys between the two.
Another laudatory piece of Brogan’s handiwork is watching his Hemingway slowly spiral into drunkenness as the scenes progress—it’s an amazingly subtle performance that looks easy to do, but isn’t.
Mark St. Germain is a gifted and talented writer/director whose works have spanned the media—small and large screens, stages and sets. His play, Freud’s Last Session, won the 2011 Off Broadway Alliance Award for Best Play and he co-wrote one of my fav films, Duma. Scott and Hem is a fun and enlightening work well worth the trip to the Contemporary American Theater Festival to catch.
Scott and Hem in the Garden of Allah . Written and Directed by Mark St. Germain . Produced at the Contemporary American Theater Festival . Reviewed by Debbie Minter Jackson.