The great and tragic American novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896-1940) died ignominiously in Hollywood as a failed screenwriter attempting to sum up his views of tinseltown in the unfinished novel “The Last Tycoon.” The inherent weaknesses of his predictable, plot-thin tale of a sick and melancholy film mogul (based on Irving Thalberg) were not solved in the 1976 feature (starring Robert DeNiro) and they are definitely not mitigated in this stylish but thematically empty stage adaptation by Simon Levy.
Fitzgerald created a potentially intriguing character in Monroe Stahr (Lawrence Monoson), one of the last of the silent film pioneers who, during the 1930s, still exercised complete control over every aspect of his studio’s film production. What neither the novelist nor Levy have addressed are the imposed limitations of a terminal central character whose rheumatic fever-damaged heart render him completely impotent to deal with the changing power structure of the film industry as represented by Stahr’s fiscally minded partner, Pat Brady (Tony Goodstone); Brady’s accountant stooge, Fleishacker (Joe Taylor); and East Coast bank exec Mr. Marcus (Gary Bullock). Stahr is gracious enough to die before he can be crushed. That’s sad but it does not make for good drama.
The secondary plot of Stahr’s infatuation with the beautiful and enigmatic Kathleen Moore (Karen Tucker) is classic Fitzgerald but isn’t vital enough to tie together the faulty structure of this work. He is originally smitten because she reminds him of his deceased wife. She beds him but leaves because she is committed to marry someone else. He goes back to work. Unlike such memorable Fitzgerald heroines as Daisy (“The Great Gatsby”) or Nicole (“Tender Is the Night”), Kathleen never insinuates herself into the very fiber of Stahr’s soul. She doesn’t affect anything accept a deeper melancholy within the man. That’s sad but it doesn’t make for good drama.
The production does gain points for style. Aided immensely by the Frank Lloyd Wright-like modular interior set design of Mark Henderson & Tim Farmer, the period-evoking projections of Evan Mower and the appealing ’30s costuming of Jeanne Reith Waterman, Levy guides his capable ensemble with seamless fluidity through the fast-paced dealings and double dealings of Stahr’s world.
Monoson’s introspective intensity evokes memories of Al Pacino’s Michael Corleone in the first “Godfather” feature. His Stahr is an admirably constant sea of calm, always absorbing the storm of chaos that surrounds him. He is effectively counterbalanced by the emotional tirades of Goodstone’s Brady (modeled after Louis B. Mayer).
As the play’s narrator, Julia Coffey is wonderfully endearing as Brady’s lovesick college-age daughter, Cecelia, whose deep adoration for Stahr is balanced by an infectious, bubbly spirit. Not as successful is Tucker’s Kathleen, whose inconsistent personality shifts appear to be driven more by her lines than a true understanding of her character.
Lending solid support in secondary roles are: Nathan LeGrand as the droll but rumpled Southern screenwriter Wylie White; Marty Pistone in his double roles as effusive Greek cameraman Nick Zavras and Stahr’s deeply concerned physician, Dr. Baer; and Rebecca Roy, who offers marvelous turns as Stahr’s efficient secretary Katy, Kathleen’s giddy starstruck friend Edna and the haunting vision of Stahr’s lullaby-singing mother.