Despite the title, there’s hardly any jazz heard in Allan Knee’s “The Jazz Age,” nor does the play provide much insight into that period between the World Wars beyond the grim repetition of Gertrude Stein’s pronouncement “You’re a lost generation.” There’s a lot of jazz about F. Scott Fitzgerald’s supposed homoerotic fixation on Ernest Hemingway (and Papa’s ambivalent reaction to same), but it doesn’t add up to a convincing portrait of two of the last century’s master prose stylists — and don’t even ask about Zelda.
Determined to zoom through the two decades from the Fitzgeralds’ meeting to Scott’s untimely death, the play is a series of two-handed “and then I wrote” conversations — or in Scott’s case, “and then I drank” — resorting to direct address when plot points don’t fit neatly into the scenes.
Familiar names are dropped (Bunny Wilson, Max Perkins) and well-worn anecdotes recycled, some gotten wrong. (Screenwriters were dismissed as “schmucks with Underwoods,” not “jerks,” and the quote is from Jack Warner rather than Louis B. Mayer.) However detailed or skimpy the research, two of the three characters just don’t come to life.
Luke Macfarlane’s Fitzgerald is given one note to play, as the character himself confesses: “I’m needy. I’m effeminate.” The actor totters and smiles through his tears, but neither the chemistry with his libidinous flapper spouse nor his descent into alcoholism is rendered credible. Nor has Knee provided him with the verbal eloquence to suggest this fellow could produce a Fitzgerald short story, let alone “The Great Gatsby.”
Armed with more interesting and surprising things to say, Jeremy Gabriel avoids cliche to make Hemingway more of a flesh-and-blood creation, investing Papa’s celebrated pugnacity with a driven artist’s sensitivity.
But poor Zelda! Knee’s interpretation predates 1970, when Nancy Milford’s biography and other scholarship began to see her as a strong artist in her own right and less as Scott’s victimizer than victim.
Here she comes across as a Tennessee Williams retread: a dreamy nymphomaniac Southern belle whose jealousy drives a wedge into her marriage, making her husband miserable until she goes bughouse. Heather Prete seems directed to channel first the young Blanche Du Bois and then Amanda Wingfield, complete with old tattered gown.
This kitschy stuff might lend itself to a light, lively treatment — like the Charleston Ernest keeps trying to teach Scott — but helmer Michael Matthews takes matters at a slow foxtrot. When Papa asks Scott to throw a drink in his face, or Scott solicits a second opinion as to whether his penis is too small (Zelda has already weighed in), the action goes exactly where we expect while taking forever to get there.
Ian Whitcomb and His Bungalow Boys work overtime in their cramped overhead platform, but an accordion/guitar/string bass trio simply isn’t constituted to convey Jazz Age authenticity, except when the action briefly moves to France or Spain.