PITTSFIELD — Playwright Mark St. Germain has a proven flair for dramatizing fictional scenarios suggested by actual historical events. But each project is born in risk.
For his latest historical mashup, “Scott and Hem in the Garden of Allah,” he’s imagined a final, tempestuous meeting between F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, literary icons who famously saw their glamorous friendship devolve into nasty rivalry.
“You can’t even write it until you feel you know them. So that’s the gamble,” he says on a recent morning, seated in a rehearsal room alongside the cast of the play, which he also directs. “The scary thing is doing the research and not knowing until you finish if the characters will talk to each other. That’s happened — you do all this research and you finally realize you don’t have a voice for either of them.”
Yet St. Germain, 58, has carved out a career specializing in this type of drama. Barrington Stage Company has been the laboratory for much of it.
“Freud’s Last Session,” his depiction of a hypothesized meeting between Sigmund Freud and C.S. Lewis, premiered here in 2009 before it transferred to New York and became a word-of-mouth off-Broadway hit, running for two years. (It’s proved a popular regional theater attraction, with subsequent productions in Chicago, Los Angeles, and even Buenos Aires.)
In 2012 at Barrington Stage, he debuted “Dr. Ruth, All the Way,” a one-woman biographical show about famed sex therapist Dr. Ruth Westheimer. (Renamed “Becoming Dr. Ruth,” the show had a successful run at TheaterWorks Hartford this summer; producers are eyeing a New York production for the fall, St. Germain says.)
Counting “Scott and Hem in the Garden of Allah” — billed, in the newly popular parlance, as a “rolling” world premiere in conjunction with the Contemporary American Theatre Festival, a West Virginia theater that staged the play last month — St. Germain has debuted seven plays with the Barrington Stage Company.
The relationship between playwright and theater continues to deepen: Last year, the stage that launched “Freud” and “Dr. Ruth,” as well as this latest play, was christened the St. Germain Stage. “I was just blown away by it,” he says of the dedication, “but I feel a bit uncomfortable with it, too. I really should be dead before they name it after me.”
Set in July 1937, “Scott and Hem in the Garden of Allah” finds Fitzgerald at a low point in his life and career, making a final stab at Hollywood success. Newly installed as a staff writer for the MGM studio, he works on a script revision in his apartment at the Garden of Allah, an opulent hotel and apartment complex known to host decadent parties for Hollywood’s glitterati.
But the biggest hurdle for both his professional progress and tenuous sobriety is an unannounced visit by Hemingway, whose sly attempts to sabotage his old friend’s comeback cloak his own insecurities. Hemingway’s success was cresting while Fitzgerald was a sadly fading star, just three years from the heart attack that would end his life.
Each man nurtured a carefully crafted persona, a fact that adds further layers to this fictional confrontation.
“I think maybe he was a very good actor,” says Ted Koch, who plays the gregarious Hemingway. “He cultivated this image of himself and was able to be totally confident and comfortable in it. I like his brutal honesty and his search for the truth. But there are definitely things I’m at odds with — like whenever I see a picture of him holding up a dead lion.”
Joey Collins, who plays Fitzgerald, says he found a “diving board” into his performance from the 1936 Esquire essay “The Crack Up.” Fitzgerald describes his declining mental state, likening himself to a cracked plate that is not fit to “be brought out for company, but it will do to hold crackers late at night or to go into the icebox under leftovers.”
The action of the new play happens in one extended scene. The verbal duel between the two writers is refereed by a studio assistant, played by Lucy Owen, who is charged with keeping Fitzgerald on schedule as a script deadline looms. (“She admires their work but has no tolerance for their personalities,” Owen remarks.)
“Since there is no break, it’s similar to Sophocles in a way, where it just starts and then once that train goes, it just keeps going downhill,” Collins says. “Once it starts you can’t stop it from happening. And that’s exciting to play.”
St. Germain says Hollywood was “totally the wrong place” for Fitzgerald, who felt hurt by the dwindling level of his fame and despised the assembly-line mentality of a business where writers were little valued.
There’s an echo here of St. Germain’s own arms-length relationship with the hub of show business. Early in his career, he scored a job as creative consultant on “The Cosby Show,” but resisted taking any staff position that would require him to move to Los Angeles full time.
As he describes himself, he could be talking about his out-of-sorts protagonist.
“I just don’t fit in there. I’m not a gregarious person. I’m absolutely the wrong person for that world.”Jeremy D. Goodwin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.