Theatre Mirror Reviews - "Clothes for A Summer Hotel"

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note: entire contents copyright 1998 by Larry Stark

"Clothes for A Summer Hotel"

by Tennessee Williams
Directed by Jeremy McCarter
Original Music Composed by Martijn Hostetler
Choreography by Stefania Heim

Set Design by Abigail Gray
Lighting Design by Ryan McGee
Sound Design by Matt Daniels
Costume Design by Pete Wilson & Charlotte Nicklas
Stage Manager Erica Rabbit

F. Scott Fitzgerald...............Tom Davidson
Zelda Fitzgerald..............Catherine Ingman
Gerald Murphy..................Demien Ordway
Intern/Edouard...............Christian Roulleau
Dr. Zeller..............................Jim Augustine
Ernest Hemingway.............Seph McNamara
Hadley/Becky.......................Jessica Shapiro
Sara Murphy...........................Tegan Shohet
Mrs. Patrick Campbell/Nurse....Marg Barker
Singer....................................Uche Amaechi
Nuns.................Kate Arms, Stephanie Smith
Daphne Adler, Monica Eav, Stephania Heim, Sarah Jacoby, Carina Marquez, Kiesha Minyard

Eighteen years ago when "Clothes for A Summer Hotel" opened on Broadway, Tennessee Williams was past his prime, but still a feisty, imaginative theatrical magician. The announced setting for the play is the chilly, wind-swept grounds of a mental institution where F. Scott Fitzgerald --- ill-dressed as the title implies --- has a surreal visit with his wife Zelda. The action in this late dream-play takes place as much in the minds and the memories of these two love-locked, mismatched, and over-famous public figures. Director Jeremy McCarter must be complimented for mounting a creditable reprise of this problematic play using student actors.

Early in the play Fitzgerald's sexist insistence that Zelda interfered with his work, while she wonders why she had no "work" of her own --- with implications that the best bits of her own stories and novel turned up under her husband's byline --- makes for a strident and unconvincing battle. Later Zelda cuckolds him with a handsome aviator in misty flashback in the best section of the play. Finally Scott's old "friend" Ernest Hemingway insists that of course a "real man" can write about homosexuals out of raw talent, while Scott may be just a bit too pretty for his own good. This revisionist attack on the author of "The Great Gatsby" --- and the dice are heavily loaded against Fitzgerald here --- ensures every audience will choose up sides. This is certainly not a well-known and often-produced play.

At Loeb Drama Center it is a lovingly produced play, at any rate. Catherine Ingman manages the many conflicted facets of Zelda's mind and character with a vulnerable solidity --- while dancing Stefania Heim's balletic choreography both as tentatively as an old student probably did, but also as grandly as a woman in an insane asylum might have thought she did. She makes it her play.

Tom Davidson's Scott must mouth lines that constantly condemn himself as weak, sexist, self-deluded, self-doubtful, and self-serving. It is a huge, thankless role continually setting himself up to be slapped down. Since the lines continually emasculate him, neither Davidson nor his director looked for any evidence of strength --- hard to find in Williams' script --- that would make him anything more than a punching-bag.

The play opens on an oddly expressionist scene provided by Abigail Gray's set: a black hole into the asylum, its grim black-barred gate guarded by two harpy-like nuns (Kate Arms & Stephanie Smith), with summer-clad Scott huddled on a park-bench on the brow of a wind-swept hill. The expanse of the Loeb's main stage exaggerates everything here, including Zelda's reluctance to step from the safety inside to face Scott outside the walls. There is a metallic "burning bush" beside the bench, and twice there is an instant's flash-forward to Zelda's death in a fire at the asylum --- stunning effects that combine Gray's sets, Ryan McGee's lights, and sound engineering by Matt Daniels.

A corps of six ballerinas dance through many early scenes --- Zelda decided that was one art where her husband could never compete with her --- and later reappear as charleston-ing couples for the Jazz-Age parties of the expatriate Murphys (Demien Ordway and Tegan Shohet), where Seph McNamara and Jessica Shapiro turn up as Ernest and Hadley Hemingway. The dream-like, memory-like flow of these scenes is effectively evocative.

McNamara's Hemingway, as Williams wrote him, comes off as much less a vindictive bully than a contemptuous victor --- though both elements are present. When he and Scott are alone on stage their mano-a-mano is as predictable as a bullfight.

The scenes between Zelda and her aviator (Christian Roulleau) --- first atop an enormous rock stage-right, then in a memory-shrouded hotel bedroom rising on the orchestra-pit elevator --- show Zelda for the only time in control of things, though doomed to fail. Her notion of romance, always needing a male to relate to, means independence is impossible --- and, even while unfaithful, the only man she relates to, unfortunately, is Scott.

One fascinating scene has Scott interrupted while trying to write --- or to drink --- during which the wallpaper of his study continually falls away to reveal ragged pastiches of tattered notebooks and newspapers. The visual and physical embodiment of his state of mind as he tries both to talk to Zelda and to repair the damage makes for an eloquently theatrical effect. It is the one scene in which Scott's predicament generates any sympathy at all for him.

In my opinion, Williams made Zelda Fitzgerald a much more interesting character by slandering and eviscerating her husband, in a big, complicated and theatrically fascinating play, and then gave it the most irrelevant title possible. But everyone connected with this production of it, particularly Catherine Ingman, director Jeremy McCarter, the design-crew and the running-crew, should be justly proud of their accomplishments.


"Clothes for A Summer Hotel"(till 2 May)
Loeb Drama Center Main Stage, 64 Brattle Street, CAMBRIDGE

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