Playwright Joshua Rebell has a distinct, acidly clever voice. His “Gatsby in Hollywood” spotlights such legendary wits as Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley and Ogden Nash and gives them hilarious, caustic lines that justify their Algonquin Round Table reputations. There’s great truth in his depiction of Hollywood as snake pit, where writers are chewed up and spit out. Rebell’s eye for detail makes the central love story of fading F. Scott Fitzgerald and gossip columnist Sheilah Graham compelling and memorable, despite a tendency to romanticize Graham and omit some of the fascinating ambiguities of her character.
When Fitzgerald met Graham in 1937, he was struggling desperately to stop drinking and hold on to screenwriting jobs. Graham, by concealing her lack of formal education and Dickensian childhood in an orphanage, had already wrested a slice of power from lethal columnists Louella Parsons and Hedda Hopper. It’s immediately clear in Rebell’s script that Graham is Eliza Doolittle in disguise, with Fitzgerald her intellectual savior. When he recognizes her insecurities, he devises a “college of one,” a combination of books and poetry to educate the eagerly receptive young woman.
This intriguing Shavian drama is downplayed, although Graham has written of it in numerous books, including her bestselling “Beloved Infidel.” Nor do we feel enough of her impact as a rescuing angel, the opposite of doomed, destructive Zelda.
Fortunately, the play gets so much right that the authenticity of the story is preserved. Chemistry between Jeff Benninghofen’s Scott and A.K. Benninghofen’s Sheilah is convincing, and we understand why Sheilah fights for Scott’s love and tolerates his alcoholic tantrums. When Fitzgerald confides to Graham his desire to write an honest book about Hollywood, his integrity as an artist is vibrantly established.
Fitzgerald was fundamentally straitlaced. When he learned Graham had been intimate with Robert Benchley and writer Eddie Mayer, he denounced her at a party as a prostitute. This horrifying scene shatteringly demonstrates his duality — the sensitive sweetness and monstrous cruelty brought out by drinking.
Some of the play’s most striking moments have nothing to do with the tormented lovers. A confrontation between Mayer (a superb Richard Gustafson) and Joseph Mankiewicz (Russell Edge), in which Mayer tells off the vicious Mankiewicz, is exceptionally well done.
A.K. Benninghofen’s Graham radiates beauty and strength. Although the woman once described by Constance Bennett as “the biggest bitch in Hollywood” is allowed, by script and director, to become vulnerable and sympathetic too early, thesp’s authority keeps her from the clutches of soap opera. Real-life husband Jeff Benninghofen flashes a social, nervous smile that masks his inner turmoil and strongly conveys the author’s bone-weary despair. Ben Davis is toweringly effective as the biting Benchley, and Andrew Friedman matches him as compassionate Ogden Nash.
Through the droll interpretation of Shirley Anderson, Dorothy Parker is far more than the familiar, quipping cliche. Silas Weir Mitchell is extraordinary as both S.J. Perelman and Ted Paramore, equaled by Linda Eve Miller’s tough and tart gossip queen Ann Adams.
Dave P. Moore’s direction keeps the humor and drama in perfect balance, and his staging brings a remarkable fluidity to the 31 scene changes. Robert Hensley’s costumes are sophisticated, sleek and elegantly stylized, and Brian Fletcher’s bright lighting keeps all the action on a fully populated stage comprehensible and absorbing.