A daydream with vestigial musicians, Allan Knee’s new play about the lives of writers in the 1920s sports a real live jazz combo where most productions would opt for a recorded track. It’s anyone’s guess what Knee and director Christopher McElroen think this adds to “The Jazz Age,” since the music is all incidental and the band is tucked away behind a scrim; the play’s best asset is not the music but P.J. Sosko, who thunders through the weak script with a kind of overjoyed rage in his role as Ernest Hemingway.
Sosko and Dana Watkins (as F. Scott Fitzgerald) go through male-bonding rituals perhaps unfamiliar to the garden-variety theatergoer: They grope one another’s balls, teach each other dance steps and finally smooch in a display of what Knee seems to believe is subtext. It’s hard to imagine what the actual text would be, in that case — if the action here were only slightly more explicit, one might be tempted to call “The Jazz Age” slash fiction. Knee never tells us that his characters were lovers, but he does let them murmur “Come hunting with me,” as though that phrase were an invitation to more than beer, venison and poor fashion choices.
But it’s not all bad. Hemingway has clearly had his way with Knee’s imagination, and the resulting fiery prevaricator is a pleasure to watch: Sosko’s leonine pugilist leads with his pelvis and all but drags his knuckles across the stage as he munches on the scenery.
The contrast between the two writers makes for a couple of titanic collisions, especially when Hemingway goads Fitzgerald into throwing a whiskey at him. The two men spar, literally and figuratively, and one of them always has enough energy to buck the other one up in his time of deepest sorrow or, more specifically, deepest alcoholism.
The real trouble with “The Jazz Age” is its patron saint: Zelda (Amy Rutberg). Rutberg is trying, but that may be part of the problem — everything looks like a tremendous effort for her flighty character, and nothing ruins a poised debutante like obvious exertion. She’s presented as the epitome of womanhood, but it’s a mystery why Scott continues to run back to her, especially as it becomes obvious that her neediness is the only thing about her with any depth. This is a dirty trick to play on your actress: The better she does her job, the less inclined the audience is to look favorably on her entire gender.
Knee wrote “The Man Who Was Peter Pan,” the basis for the film “Finding Neverland,” and there are seeds of the same kind of tender story in “The Jazz Age.”
The playwright evinces a deep sympathy for people who can’t help themselves and an ear for clever exchanges, though these are sometimes slowed down in favor of allowing Fitzgerald and Hemingway to aphorize. Rather than tell a straight biography, though, Knee seems to have superimposed a story that’s not organic to his characters. And it’s obvious that these lives don’t want to be steered in the direction he’s trying to take them.