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No sex on the beach: Bomer and Mudge (standing, seated) in Villa America.

Literary Malaise

By Ralph Hammann

Villa America

Written and directed by Crispin Whittell

Williamstown Theatre Festival, Williamstown, Mass., through July 22

There seems to be no compelling reason for Villa America to exist. Well, in actuality, it exists because Crispin Whittell was commissioned to write a play that would dovetail nicely with the Williams College Museum of Art’s concurrent exhibition about Gerald and Sara Murphy and their circle.

One problem is that Whittell’s play presumes a knowledge of who the Murphys were. He assumes his audience will know that they were wealthy expatriates who settled on the French Riviera where they created a social circle of artistic and literary luminaries in the 1920s.

With the characters Whittell has written into his fiction, it would seem that something arresting would result. Matters begin sloppily enough when the ghost of F. Scott Fitzgerald (Nate Corddry in a frequently annoying performance) visits Sara Murphy on the beach outside her Easthampton home in 1968. With most of the Murphy’s circle of artists dead, Fitzgerald and Murphy reminisce about old times. A poem-inspiring full moon looms over the gentle dunes that descend downstage into pure, unblemished, if rather coarse, sand. The setting by Mimi Lien is among the WTF’s nicer efforts, as is the delicate lighting by Thom Weaver.

Although not much of what Fitzgerald and Murphy discuss is of much substance, the setting at least promises something. Part of the problem lies in Corddry’s rather mechanical delivery of Fitzgerald’s lines, and much of Corddry’s problem lies in the stiffness of the lines he must utter. This is less dialogue than speechifying for the sake of delivering exposition and position points about subjects that have not hooked our attention. At any rate, the ghost is a transparent contrivance that is poorly realized.

Matters improve as Jennifer Mudge takes over the character of Sara in 1926, as she will in the subsequent flashback scenes. Mudge successfully creates a woman of sufficient magnetism that she will become the focal point for the play’s quartet of men: Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Pablo Picasso, and her husband, Gerald.

Mudge beautifully utilizes a clipped delivery, full of sharp angles and representative of Sara’s wit. This exists in exciting counterpoint to her physical poise and voluptuous allure.

Corddry never convinces us that Fitzgerald is a heavy drinker. He does, however, lose his annoying quality when called upon to get angry, arguably his few lines distinguished by genuine emotion in the play.

Matthew Bomer fares better as Hemingway. He conveys a raw animal magnetism, and we believe him when he says that he feels best after “a drink, a smoke and a fuck.”

Karl Kenzler has the least glitzy role as Gerald Murphy, and unburdened by iconic status he performs well within the confines of his character, but as is true of the other men, we don’t get a full sense of who he is and what motivates him, save for the last scene in the play.

Picasso is given briefest treatment, and David Deblinger gives an amusing sketch of the artist. The reason for his inclusion is clear enough: Picasso is the only one of the artists to get Sara to take off her clothes, an action that reveals a figure worthy of inspiring sensual paintings or succulent prose. But is that one moment the point of the play? Very likely. As Hemingway reveals earlier, men are all dogs.

A Beautiful Shrine

Saint Joan

By George Bernard Shaw, directed by Gregory Thompson, AandBC theatre company

Bard Summerscape, Annandale-on-Hudson, through July 22

First, the bad news: This is one of the most mind-numbingly long plays I’ve ever seen, topping the charts at three and a half hours (with a 20-minute intermission). Early critics complained after Saint Joan opened in 1923; Shaw crankily defended the clas- sical length. Certainly, though, some of the crustier speeches (by the Bishop of Beauvais and the Inquisitor, for example) could be cut without harm.

Lights are left on the audience throughout much of this production, which takes place on a circular stage, so one feels one can hardly swallow without everyone noticing. It’s a long three and a half hours.

Now the good news: These are some of the most worthwhile hours you will spend (and the seats are comfortable). If you’ve been pining for British theater but can’t afford the trip to London, hie thee to Annandale-on-Hudson. Gregory Thomp son’s direction is inspired, and the actors fully embody their characters, with Louise Collins showing both Joan’s infectious naiveté and her final transcendence. In her final scene, her speech is so impassioned that spittle gathers at the corners of her mouth.

Thompson breaks with tradition by framing the play as a flashback, beginning with the epilogue, when Joan’s ghost appears to her friends and foes, who wear contemporary clothes. Thompson explains the play’s relevance today: “All over the world there are young men and women who hear voices from God telling them to rid their countries of foreign invaders.” True, but I am more struck by their dissimilarities to enlightened visionaries like Joan. And one only wishes for more modern-day judges who were as eloquent as Shaw’s.

With the Irish-born Bernard Shaw’s pen, the English language is burnished to a high shine, and these actors convey both his rhetorical deftness and his playfulness. In the first scene, Captain Robert de Baudricourt (Richard Heap) is consternated because his hens are not laying eggs. In this humorous incident are contained important themes of the play: the superstitions of the Middle Ages; the importance of class; the idea that a miracle is in the eye of the beholder. As the subtle Archbishop of Rheims (Tom McGovern) later explains, miracles may be simple sleights-of-hand, but “that does not matter: If they confirm or create faith they are true miracles.” We know Shaw used the historical record for many of Joan’s words, including her brilliant statement “I cannot tell you the whole truth: God does not allow the whole truth to be told.”

With any larger-than-life figure, there is a danger of romanticization, but Shaw’s rationalists—the Dauphin (a marvelously pouty Rhys Meredith), the Inquisitor (David Fielder), the Earl of Warwick (Richard Heap)—counterbalance Joan’s spiritual certainty. Also, the audience is aware of the historical context without being distracted thanks to marvelous costuming and set by Ellen Cairns. Especially gorgeous is the coronation garb worn by the Dauphin and the robe of the Earl of Warwick.

Some critics see Saint Joan as didactic, and they are right insofar as we hear about the action (Joan’s visions, the siege of Orleans, and even her burning) through dialogue. But watching Thompson’s Saint Joan is like spending time with the most difficult but brilliant history teacher you ever had: The Socratic dialogue is worth sweating over.

Thompson won the prestigious Jerwood Young Vic Directors Award in 2006. The Richard B. Fisher Center theater is a perfect setting for Thompson’s vision: It reminded me more of the ancient amphitheater than of Broadway, encouraging the audience to think of themselves as part of the play. Certainly, this production at the Fisher center also deserves to be remembered as one of the best.

—Meisha Rosenberg


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