PITTSFIELD — The year is 1937, and novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald is holed up in a Hollywood villa, trying to finish a screenplay and stay on the wagon while a raucous July Fourth party unfolds beneath his balcony. Enter Ernest Hemingway, and the real fireworks begin. Their encounter sparks a rambling conversation that ranges from alcoholism and insanity to death and homosexuality.
Mark St. Germain’s “Scott and Hem in the Garden of Allah,” premiering at Barrington Stage Company, explores the love-hate relationship between the two writers, who were fierce rivals and fickle friends. Their egos are larger than the Hollywoodland sign outside the window. They drop names and one-liners breezily. “I swear we invented Cubism,” Fitzgerald says, dismissing Picasso.
But for all their swagger and bluster, the two writers are haunted by the nagging fear that they are out of words. Both men want to live on through their work. They seethe with jealousy for other writers. Hemingway criticizes William Faulkner because he uses big words. In one amusing bit, Fitzgerald mockingly reads aloud from Margaret Mitchell’s “Gone With the Wind,” and Hemingway recoils, shouting, “Don’t quote her at me!” Later, the book becomes both a weapon and a shield.
As portrayed here, Fitzgerald is a dandy who is down on his luck, and Hemingway is a brooder who pops Dexedrine pills to battle his demons. They are put in their place by a character named Evelyn Montaigne, a studio rep whose job is to make sure Fitzgerald stays off the booze and rewrites his script. A bleached blonde in two-tone stilettos, she has no use for their antics or advances. “Writers like you make actors look like adults,’’ she says.
St. Germain, who is a BSC associate artist and has written historical plays about such figures as Sigmund Freud, C.S. Lewis, and Dr. Ruth, aims to show the vulnerability of these two literary legends by putting them together at a critical time. Fitzgerald has just committed his wife, Zelda, to a psychiatric hospital, and Hemingway is scarred by his troubled childhood. But the conversation here is all too contrived. People, even literary geniuses, don’t unveil their darkest secrets in one short sitting. It’s like four years on the couch played out in 85 minutes. Even the studio rep has a convenient secret, drawing the three of them together in an unlikely confessional.
Under the playwright’s direction, the production is witty at times and features well-honed performances, but there is no escaping the implausibility of the scenario. As Fitzgerald, Joey Collins speaks with a Princeton lockjaw and strikes a perfectly patrician pose in a smoking jacket. He is clearly thirsty for money and acclaim — or maybe just a shot of Hemingway’s whiskey. He gets the DTs only when he picks up a glass, which is convenient but jarring. As Hemingway, Ted Koch is a burly bruiser, but he also reveals the wounded child beneath all the machismo. He is a man who, in the words of Montaigne, poses with “dead lions and big fish and short bullfighters,” but he is also a guy who carries a rabbit’s foot in his coat pocket. As the studio rep, Angela Pierce is a no-nonsense woman in a man’s world, and her words are as sharp as her heels are high. Every time she stands up, she straightens her blouse crisply, as if to say, “Don’t mess with me, boys.”
The mano a mano takes place on David M. Barber’s faux-Spanish villa set, a place where potted plants provide the perfect hiding place for a bottle. Margaret A. McKowen’s period costumes fit the characters’ personalities. Jessica Paz’s sound design creates the roar of the party outside, where Dorothy Parker is drunk, Charles Laughton is floating in the pool, and Tallulah (Bankhead, who else?) is running around naked.
That’s quite the party, but it’s a bit much, as is the play. Deep revelations arise again and again, as if out of nowhere. That said, the play does strike a nerve when the two men talk about what it means to be a writer. They long for immortality, even as they fear death. “If I’m not writing, I’m nobody,” Hemingway says. He also quotes the last lines of “The Great Gatsby” before he exits into the night, and there is a quiet poignancy in that moment, a welcome simplicity in a play that is otherwise too hard to swallow.