CLOTHES FOR A SUMMER HOTEL by Tennessee Williams, Directed by Jose Quintero, set design by Oliver Smith; costumes by Theoni V. Aldredge; lighting by Rennagel; music by Michael Valent dance consultant, Ana Sokolow.
With Geraldie Page, Kenneth Haigh, David Canary, Robert Black, Michael Connolly and Michael Granger.
At the Eisenhower Theater through Feb. 23.
For all the bizarre and half-baked goods Tennessee Williams has produced over the last two inglorious decades of his career, he has never written anything with so little urgency or passion as the play that opened at the Kennedy Center last night "Clothes for a Summer Hotel" is deeply, sadly and tiresomely unworthy not only of its author but of its subject matter, Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald.
The self-appointed task of writing abut real people -- and these real people in particular -- seems to have robbed Williams of his lyricism and spurred him to grab at the sort of formulaic explanations of character he has spent a lifetime avoiding. Zelda complains that she has had to play the "part" of Mrs. F. Scott Fitzgerald, to be a "monument" in his writings. "I don't htink he's ever looked deeply enough into my eyes," she declares. "If he did I wouldn't serve so well as the heroine of his fiction."
There are none of the magnificent veins of ambiguity here that have made Tennessee Williams' plays enthralling. "I don't say obvious things." That has been true -- until now -- of Tennesse Williams too.
Williams has an eye for what was shabby about Fitzgerald, but no apparent appreciation of what made him notable as a man or a writer.You can't knock a hero down before you have him standing up.
Of course, the basic elements of this story are known: The image-consious writer and the rebellious flapper combining to put themselves on exhibit as archetypes of a decade, then expiring each after his own fashion -- drink, writer's block, Hollywood and a fatal heart attack for him; frustration, envy, confinement and death by fire for her. But anyone who knows this much and hopes, with Tennessee Williams as escort, to plunge deeper into the legend, will be bitterly disappointed.
Instead, we are treated to reductioadpredictum: Scott, the play suggests, was every bit as crazy as Zelda. "You occupy a madhouse there (in Hollywood)," she tells him, and "I occupy one here (in North Carolina)." Anticipating her own death, she predicts that he "will burn too, although not literally . . . I'm afraid you're going to burn up before me."
From one of the century's extraordinary writers addressing the unhappy life of another writer, you might expect a feel for the glories and hazards of that occupation. But in all the discussions between Scott and Zelda about talent versus discipline, and between Scott and a cartoon version of Ernest Hemingway about strength versus feeling, there is nothing faintly profound.
No matter how you try to approach this play -- a question that surfaces only because the work is so unengrossing -- you come back empty. Your first instinct may be to ignore whatever you think you know about the real people, events and writings that figure here and look instead for something self-contained, self-defining.Hasn't Tennessee Williams always drawn a bold border around the edge of his plays? Hasn't their intoxicating effects had something to do with their closedness?
But this play, it quickly becomes clear, is different, and deliberately so. It is loaded with references to characters and books that shed little light on the business onstage unless you can marshal some external knowledge. When Scott tells Zelda of his determination to finish "The Last Tycoon," for instance, she comes back with: "But you have your notes, as always, and dear old Bunny Wilson will finish it for you, as always."
It is the books themselves -- not only Scott's but Zelda's one remarkable novel, "Save Me the Waltz" -- that are most external and most intrinsic. Only some knowledge of the perception, wit and strength shown by both Fitzgeralds could possibly make anyone care about the weak, shallow people portrayed within the confines of "Clothes for a Summer Hotel." F. Scott Fitzgerald as rendered by Williams -- a brittle, pathetic man with scarcely any insight into himself, his wife or the rest of society -- is nobody who could possibly have written "The Last Tycoon," as Fitzgerald did at about this period in his life.
As scott, Kenneth Haigh does his level best to make something of a hopelessly frail character. Geraldine Page's Zelda, on the other hand, becomes a exhausting a performance as it is a piece of writing. Her unmodulating voice tnds to flatten out a character that was already too flat to begin with. And it certainly doesn't help that she is far too old for the part, which includes specific flashbacks to Zelda's young years and asks, more generally, for tha audience to make an emotional connection with the lost, dazzling belle of Montgomery.
Otherwise, "Cothes for a Summer Hotel" has received a production far beyond anything it deserves. Oliver Smith has cut loose with some dazzlingly evocative scenery that supplemented by Michael Valenti's artful music, casts just the right spell over the proceedings, and director Jose Quintero and the supporting company seem utterly driven by the play and its subject -- far more so, alas, than the author.
A few minutes into the play, we are waiting outside the dark gates of a castle-like mental hospital for the emergence of its most legendary inmate, while dancing ghosts, deranged voices, fluttering nuns in black capes and a vast, shifting sky fill the stage with moody imminence.
This is the sort of enveloping, other-worldly moment you would hope for from these collaborators. But moments -- and very few of them at that -- are all there is to "Clothes for a Summer Hotel."