One of the most curious and enduring unions in literary history is examined with affection in “Gertrude and Alice: A Likeness to Loving,” a new play written and performed by Lola Pashalinski and Linda Chapman. The author-performers have cleverly culled autobiographical material from a variety of writings by Stein and Toklas, creating a theatrical curio that reveals the emotional contours of the writers’ “marriage” in the incantatory, repetitive linguistic style that Stein made famous (or that made Stein famous).
The result is fluid and artful, but still will probably bore to distraction viewers without a prior interest in Stein’s life and work, despite a stylish production and intelligent staging by Anne Bogart. Marrying Stein’s experimental literary style to rather mundane bio-play material — lovers’ spats, career highlights — ultimately doesn’t serve either Stein’s abstruse art or the exigencies of drama particularly well.
Stein’s style, more concerned with sound than sense, makes for some humorous exchanges and gives the play a certain pleasing poetic rhythm, but it’s hard to ignore the nonsensical nature of much of its language. When her words are spoken , the play’s Stein (Pashalinski) can sound uncomfortably like a highbrow Dr. Seuss: “Virgil Thompson comes to stay. Virgil Thompson comes today.”
Pashalinski and Chapman take a vaguely chronological approach, charting the course of the love between Stein and Toklas from first meeting to the famous Rue de Fleurus menage and professional collaboration, with notable interludes concentrating on the fierceness of a love that could brook no competition.
In the initial scene, Stein doggedly questions Toklas about her intimacies. “Didn’t Nelly and Lilly love you?” she repeats imploringly. Stein’s rapport with arts patron Mabel Dodge instantly arouses Toklas’ jealousy, and later Toklas becomes obsessed with Stein’s prior relationship with May Bookstaver, going so far as to insist that Stein change all the “mays” in a manuscript to “can.”
But because most of the text is adapted from Stein’s self-consciously stylized language, little real sense of these women as actual human beings comes across — Stein’s art is on some level at odds with biography, chronology and storytelling, which are inherently part of the theatrical experience being attempted here.
Chapman’s wide-eyed Toklas seems rather more perky than the real woman, whose dour face, half-hidden under an unfortunate hat, peers out morosely from photographs of the famed couple. Pashalinski bears a stronger physical resemblance to Stein, and she radiates a determined intelligence that breathes life into this stylized depiction of the literary iconoclast.
Pashalinski and the play are most effective when she’s reading excerpts from some of Stein’s letters, in which she describes her struggle to gain the fame her overweening ego craves without sacrificing her unique and vigilantly held literary principles: “You see this publication business is not a thing I can so well dispense with, in the first place waiting and waiting to have the things you write printed and then they are not and hope deferred does make the heart sick.” In these and other passages, Pashalinksi beautifully finds a way to convey emotion through the vehicle of Stein’s difficult writing.
Bogart’s simple staging often echoes the repetitive nature of Stein’s prose (Stein continually blows out a match before Toklas can light her cigarette) and does succeed in evoking the strangely insular nature of the relationship. Myung Hee Cho’s setting is an attractive cubist study in grays that features minimal furniture and a red handbag and hat displayed iconically. Mimi Jordan Sherin’s shimmering, precise lighting drenches the gray background in various hues.
Musical selections include a few bars from the Stein-Thompson opera “Four Saints in Three Acts,” which serve to remind how much Stein’s words can benefit from musical settings — adding emotional texture that’s largely missing from “A Likeless to Loving” and helping to transfigure the surface silliness of her words.