Monday, February 08, 2010

On-Stage: Clothes for a Summer Hotel

She was a former Southern belle who was institutionalized in a mental sanatorium. If Zelda Fitzgerald sounds like a Tennessee Williams heroine, it turns out she eventually was, though many theater patrons are probably unfamiliar with the play in question. The Fitzgeralds and their friends, including fellow Scribner’s author Ernest Hemingway, continue to haunt and torment each other in Williams’s “ghost play,” Clothes for a Summer Hotel, the playwright’s final Broadway production which the White Theatre Company has revived in a staging now running at the Hudson Guild Theatre.

In retrospect, it seems bizarre that Hotel closed on Broadway in 1980 after only fifteen performances. How often did jaded New Yorkers have an opportunity to see the late Geraldine Page in a new Tennessee Williams play? Though the contemporary reviews were unkind, the play as performed by the White Horse (using a text twice revised by Williams from the original 1980 stage version) contains plenty of meaty Williamseque themes, including love, art, sexuality, and madness.

As Hotel opens, F. Scott Fitzgerald shivers outside the gates of a sanitarium, guarded by two rather severe nuns in what could be a scene out of Kafka. As soon as he heard about his wife’s commitment, he left his Hollywood screenwriting gig in such a hurry he did not pack more appropriate clothes for the chilly East Coast climate. Eventually, Zelda comes out, but it is not exactly a loving reunion. As anyone with a cursory familiarity with twentieth century American literature knows, the Fitzgeralds had a turbulent marriage, giving them plenty of difficult memories to agonize over throughout both acts of Hotel.

Everyone in Hotel is apparently dead, reliving and commenting on key events from the past. (However, F. Scott does not seem to recognize that yet.) Indeed, Williams’s narrative flashes forward and back in time, creating an impressionistic rather than chronological sense of the Fitzgeralds’ lives together. Perhaps not surprisingly though, the highpoint of Hotel comes in a confrontation between Fitzgerald and his frienemy Ernest Hemingway—two hard drinking American writers grappling with professional jealousy and issues of sexuality raised in their work—territory Williams was certainly familiar with.

As the Fitzgeralds, Peter J. Crosby and Kristen Vaughan really project a sense of a couple that has each other’s numbers. They convincingly express the mysterrious affection that somehow kept them together, despite being buried under years of infidelities, betrayals, and public scenes, as well as the myriad of resentments that preclude them from forgiving and forgetting. Making quite an impression in his comparatively limited stage time, Rod Sweitzer is gruff and blustery enough to capture the self-serving vigor of a still youthful Hemingway, without becoming a caricature of the famous author.

Director Cyndy A. Marion nicely stages Hotel’s temporal dislocations, keeping the events and settings clear and distinct. It all has a classy sheen thanks to the evocative incidental music composed by Joe Gianono, (whose arranging credits include work with jazz great Gene Bertoncini).

It is amazing how rewarding it is to revisit Tennessee Williams’s “flops.” Based on the White Horse revival, Hotel clearly seems like a play that deserved a better fate. Though its non-linear structure is relatively challenging compared to most of the Williams canon, its subjects—Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald—would seem to have an enduring commercial appeal, making it a shrewd choice to restage. It is a literate, well mounted production, definitely worth checking out. Now officially open, Hotel runs at the Hudson Guild Theatre through February 21st, with a special post-show Williams panel discussion scheduled to follow the February 14th performance.

(Photo: Joe Bly)