The tumultuous personal lives and demons of Hemingway, Mailer, and many of our greatest writers can sometimes overshadow their indelible literary achievements. In American Lit, playwright James F. Bruns offers an entertaining, if uneven, series of vignettes that capture titans of literature as they might have been in the quiet moments behind closed doors and beyond the hyperbole.
The play opens with “Hemingway, the Arkansas Years,” set in Hemingway’s rural 1930’s residence. Strapping Mike Kelly cuts a fine figure as the mercurial scribe of “The Old Man and the Sea”, et al, pacing the stage, dreaming of island escapes from his landlocked abode. Kristin K. Apker serves as a balancing force in the role of Hemingway’s sensible wife Pauline, while Marsha Rehns adds some sarcastic levity as Hemingway’s patient mother-in-law. Kelly and Apker’s initial chemistry is rocky as they stumble over each other’s lines, but they soon hit their stride. The highlight is Kelly’s monologue about writing on a cold winter’s day, which evokes Hemingway’s best passages and truly transports the audience for a few precious seconds.
“The Cain Scrutiny,” ostensibly follows seminal crime novelist and screenwriter James Cain during his short 1950’s exile from Hollywood. Like the first segment, “Scrutiny” starts a bit slow, with some uneven dialogue between Cain lookalike Geoffrey Brand and his simple-minded mailman friend Pete. The vignette picks up speed when Cain’s lively wife Flo enters to pull him out of his doldrums. Ashley Amidon adds a welcome charge to the proceedings, as a bored housewife pining for Hollywood life. It’s easy to imagine her starry-eyed daydreaming pushing Cain to return to California and recover his mantle as one of America’s premiere hardboiled voices.
“The Writer’s Colony” turned out to be the strongest segment of the night, set in the influential Handy Writer’s Colony in the 1950’s. Young Marty, played with youthful exuberance by Matt Succi, is trying to become a great novelist in the Iowa-based Colony. His abortive attempts at writing are interrupted by the force of nature that is Andra Whitt. As Colony Founder Lowney Handy, Whitt is a captivating taskmaster who speaks forcefully about the dedication and sacrifice required to write something timeless. It’s a joy to watch her play the hard-nosed sensei to Succi’s bright-eyed student.
Written and directed by James F. Bruns
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Next, “Going to Meet the Man”, imagines an encounter between Tennessee Williams and Gore Vidal before a planned meeting with JFK in 1960. Bruns’ take on the two icons’ meeting offers some great dialogue and insight; it’s just a shame the actors stumble through much of it. Whenever they seem unsure of their lines, Gary Cramer (Tennessee) and Dwayne Allen (Gore) fall back on, respectively, continuous stuttering and musical theater gesticulations. They find a groove toward the end, meditating sadly on the destructive compulsions gripping Tennessee’s life.
The final piece, “The Last Bullfighter”, takes on the touchy subject of literary criticism. At a swank 1960’s party, Paul Fahrenkopf and Will F. Young engage in a great repartee as NYC critics discussing their craft and stymied ambitions. It’s a refreshingly smooth postscript that takes an outsider view of the writer’s life. That is, until Norman Mailer shows up. As a drunk, belligerent Mailer, Firas Natour is totally unhinged and furious at the assembled critics, whom he sees as existential enemies. Fahrenkopf does a yeoman’s work to keep order for as long as he can, even delivering a scathing review of Mailer’s work while Natour babbles on. But the action goes totally off the rails as the actors hurry through a crazy climax.
Bruns has assembled a game cast around a refreshing take on some of our greatest literary figures. With a bit more polish and practice, Bruns’ unique vision should shine through.