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Paulanne Simmons

The Maddening Truth

"The Maddening Truth"
Directed by Carl Forsman
The Clurman Theater at Theatre Row
410 West 42nd St. between 9th and 10th avenues
Opens Jan. 30, 2008
Tues. 7 p.m., Wed. thru Sat. 8 p.m., Sun. 2 p.m.
$40 (212) 279-4200 or www.ticketcentral.com
Closes Feb. 23, 2008
Reviewed by Paulanne Simmons Jan. 26, 2008

David Hay, whose "The Maddening Truth" is now being staged by Keen Company under the direction of Carl Forsman, is a writer on art and architecture, and a contributor to The New York Times, Men's Vogue and New York Magazine. All of this is clearly evident in his new play.

"The Maddening Truth" takes a look at Hemmingway's third wife, Martha Gellhorn, and her heroic attempt in her mid-60s to write a novel with the same kind of stature achieved by those of her husband. It is a play about people, places and times. But most of all it is a play about ideas.

Veteran actress Lisa Emery plays Gellhorn with great verve and wit. She also manages to portray the writer as an older and younger woman (in flashbacks) with equal believability. There are three men in Gellhorn's life.

Peter Wilkinson (William Connell) is a newspaperman she meets in the seventies during the height of the war in Vietnam. Although he cannot help her secure an assignment in that war-torn country, she grants him a revealing interview and then turns against him when she reads the results.

Laurance Rockefeller (Richard Bekins who glides effortlessly on and off stage like a reincarnated Jimmy Stuart) is a longtime friend, the nicest member of his family. He is faithful, sympathetic and deeply in love with Gellhorn. It is to him that she reveals all the vulnerability and pain she hides from everyone else.

Ernest Hemmingway (Terry Layman), who appears only in flashback as he is dead in present time, is the towering figure in her life, but a nasty piece of work. His advice seems to be born more of a competitive jealousy than an honest desire to advance his wife's career. He bullies and rages, tearing pages from her typewriter when he's in a really nasty mood.

Gellhorn, whose greatest fame had come with her eyewitness accounts of the Spanish Civil War, the liberation of Dachau and the bombing of Vietnam, is determined not to become a "fossil on furlough from the museum of extinct relics." Much of the play is devoted to the exploration of what makes a good writer.

Peter, in his disheveled, counterculture youth thinks this is done by breaking conventions and laying out his own "set of truths." But Gellhorn insists that "not all fiction is navel watching." Curiously her model is not her own former husband but Leo Tolstoy.

Of course, it's not hard to see why Gellhorn resents Hemmingway. In the play, he spends most of his time making her feel inadequate.

When the dust settles, what this play does make obvious is that creativity is not passive, but it is painful. In Gelllhorn's triumphant BBC reading with Geoffrey Brooks (Layman), her limpid prose is searing and revelatory. And Forsman knows how to let the words speak for themselves, with no gimmicks and no bells and whistles.

"The Maddening Truth" is making its premiere in the 21st century. But there is something about this play that hearkens back to another time, a time when words counted and people were willing to pay attention long enough to listen and think about them.

This alone is cause for celebration.



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