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Still Dancing After All These Years
"Zelda at the Oasis"
Zelda Fitzgerald once said, “To be young and beautiful for a long time. That is what I want.” But fate had other ideas, and the unlucky lady, locked in a room waiting for electro shock therapy, died at age 48 in the Highland Mental Hospital in Asheville, North Carolina. A fire spread throughout the hospital and poof she was gone. The year was 1948.
As far as Zelda’s husband, the great American novelist and short story writer, F. Scott Fitzgerald, an unrepentant alcoholic since his college days, he died of a massive heart attack at age 44. The year was 1940. At the time, a down and out Hollywood script writer begging for jobs, he was living with gossip columnist Sheila Graham.
Though both Fitzgeralds lived fast, furiously, and famously, and died in their forties, their larger-than-life legend, as portrayed in film, stage, and books, with varying degrees of success, has kept their names, front and center, alive and kicking for nearly three-quarters of a century.
And why not? The once dubbed “Golden Couple” who went though life, here and abroad, nursing countless bottles of booze while writing about each other’s escapades, that is, when they could, is an extremely captivating story, one that filled pages of print, and supplied much gossip, during the Roaring Twenties, the Jazz Age and the so-called Lost Generation.
The first man out of the gate to resuscitate the dead
Fitzgerald’s was Budd Schulberg, a fellow screenwriter who had collaborated
with Scott in Hollywood on the 1939 film, Winter Carnival. Schulberg
wrote The Disenchanted (1950) which presented an F. Scott Fitzgerald
as an inspired alcoholic failure. This was followed in 1951 by Arthur
Mizener’s The Far Side of Paradise, a biography of Fitzgerald which
largely blamed Zelda’s mental health for his lost potential.
In all of these presentations Zelda was treated as an appendage, an accessory to the fact, as well as the reason for her husband’s precipitous decline. It wasn’t until 1970 with Nancy Milford’s best selling book Zelda: A Biography, that Zelda, recast as an artist in her own right, a woman whose talents, dancing, painting, and writing in particular were belittled by a controlling husband, was given a life of her own.
Thus Zelda became an icon of the feminist movement in
the 1970s—a woman whose unappreciated potential had been suppressed
by patriarchal society.
Currently bringing Zelda back in all her glory at St. Luke’s Theatre is Zelda at the Oasis, a new play by P. H. Lin. Commissioned from the F. Scott Fitzgerald Centennial Committee of Rockville, Maryland, the final resting place of Zelda and Scott, this Zelda is to be part of their F. Scott Fitzgerald 100th Birthday Celebration.
The play, set sometime in the 1930s, opens with Zelda (Gardner Reed) downing drinks at The Club Oasis, a New York City bar. It is closing time and the bartender (Edwin Cahill) is doing his best to get Zelda, who wants more booze and more talk, to leave.
That he doesn’t succeed, allows Zelda, with Cahill playing many roles, both male and female, to relive all of the major events – far too sketchily so — in her life.
We get to meet her husband Scott in several scenes, a reporter, her doctor, her husband’s rival Ernest Hemingway, her mother, her ballet teacher, and a French lover, all being played, when he is not the piano-playing bartender, by Mr. Cahill. The bartender is the only character that he brings believably to life, and wonderfully so.
His portrayal of the other characters with slight disguises, a pair of glasses, a scarf, a hat, and phony accents, are dismal, an embarrassment actually, for the audience, and most likely for the actor as well.
Though Reed speaks well, moves well, dances around the stage quite nicely, and telegraphs all the pain that Zelda is going through, the ‘paint by numbers’ script with its alternating scenes between past and present, real and imagined – this does get quite confusing – is far too shallow to allow Reed, Cahill or the workman-like direction of Andy Sandberg to shine.
Like bad dancing, one could see how the actors try to smooth out their transition, from one scene to the next, in search of a dramatic heartbeat. But the writing signals the coming of each change before the actor has a chance to slip into character. Worse, we are being told everything we already know. Not a surprise or revelation in sight.
This said the atmospheric bar and piano set and lighting by Colin McGurk and Grant Yeager, respectively, is spot-on perfect. If only the play followed suit.
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