Hemingway blathers about bullfighting, Fitzgerald has a wicked hangover, and Picasso is wooing a woman to pose nude. Ah, the iconic life on the beach at the Cap d’Antibes in the world preem of “Villa America,” Crispin Whittell’s play about 1920s expats in the South of France. When peopling plays with such legendary characters, whose reputations — and caricatures — precede them, it’s a challenge to make them human, dramatic and fresh. Try as he might using comic incident, shock talk and sexual situations, Whittell’s depiction of famous artists in a golden time remains rooted in stereotypes, myth and artifice.
Scribe’s promising strategy is to center his play around Gerald (Karl Kenzler, doing his best Edward Herrmann impersonation) and Sara Murphy (Jennifer Mudge), the genial hosts, friends and muses of the lit — in more ways than one — crowd.
But it’s a tricky transference from perennial supporting characters into starring positions, especially when competing with such romantic egotists as the Fitzgeralds (even as an offstage character, Zelda’s presence is significant), a bravura Hemingway (Matthew Bomer) and a Picasso (David Deblinger, an uncanny resemblance), who already refers to himself in the third person. Even the Murphys’ French governess (Charlotte Booker) has an enviable past.
Whittell only superficially explores the Murphys and the environment they created, in a text filled with bon mots, period references and dropped names.
We learn little about the beautiful, tender, grounded Sara, who becomes the object of more than a little affection among the artists who visit the couple at their beach retreat, a way station for these revolutionary modernists.
And poor husband Gerald doesn’t make a case for himself until the play’s final scene. Until then, the almost-artist — who made his life an art — comes across as a pleasant, privileged twit, mixing Manhattans and tut-tutting at his out-of-control guests.
The performances don’t help balance the faults of the script, perhaps because the playwright is also directing the premiere and none too well.
Mudge’s Sara comes across early as sharp and scolding, with little sign of the gracious glue that holds the assortment of artistic temperaments together. She — and the other characters — are simply too occupied telling offstage anecdotes and rattling off awkward exposition. (“You know Diaghelev, don’t you?” Gerald asks Picasso.)
Play is told in four scenes going backward in time. It begins in 1968 with an elderly Sara summoning the ghosts of her past life and ends with Gerald’s marriage proposal on the same beach in 1915. But instead of her recently departed and devoted husband appearing in the first scene, Fitzgerald (Nate Corddry, in a flat, monotone perf) appears, suggesting a connection that was more than a deep friendship and flirtation.
Subsequent scenes — in 1926 and 1923 — veer all over the narrative map, careening from literary one-upmanship, to post-party depressions, to the endless self-analyses of the era by the characters.
It’s apparently also about the size of Fitzgerald’s penis. A prolonged scene ends with Hemingway on his knees in a cabana taking a gander to reassure his pal that it’s a fine size.
The ick level reappears at other times, mostly from the crudities of Hemingway, natch, and even the otherwise elegant-appearing Fitzgerald, who compares Zelda’s penchant for truth-telling in a climactic scene to picking one’s nose in public.
Perhaps the best way to understand both the realities and the myth of this era is see the exhibit at Williams College that is running concurrently with the commissioned play. “Making It New: The Art and Style of Sara and Gerald Murphy” gets it right and real, artifice and all. For theater fans, museum-going may be the best revenge.