With his works' robust characters and use of subtext, Ernest Hemingway would seem to be a theatrical natural. His daughter-in-law, Carol Hemingway, has seen fit to finally give Hemingway his stage due with It Just Catches, now playing at the Cherry Lane Theatre, with varied but ultimately invigorating results.
It Just Catches is a collage of ten pieces of Hemingway's writing, presented by Carol Hemingway and director Edward Hastings in a free-flowing, intertwining, yet cohesive evening. Five of the stories receive primary focus and attention in terms of stage time, with the other five serve as transitional material. While these smaller interludes occasionally overshadow the more significantly excerpted pieces, all the scenes work alone and in concert.
Yet their other dramatic choice is less sure. They have also used a handful of Porter's songs to smooth over the seams and draw corollaries between the pieces, and this works only intermittently. The Porter songs are attractively played and sung, but, in this context, they frequently lack the musical drama provided by Hemingway's own words. Porter's "Tomorrow," for example, latches onto the glimmer of hope at the end of "Across the River and Through the Trees," while "Make it Another Old Fashioned, Please," is well-suggested by the drunken hopelessness at the end of "The Light of the World" and the beginning of "The Three Day Blow."
It's explained in the Playbill that Hemingway knew Porter and was a great fan of his work, so representing Porter here isn't a bad idea. But the songs contribute less to Hemingway's works in It Just Catches than to the sheer entertainment value of the show, so they seldom feel essential. The presentation and the acting of "The Three Day Blow," in which two men commiserate over bottle after bottle of alcohol is strong enough on its own. "Cat in the Rain," is similar - Hemingway's story, about a woman's desperate need for companionship in the form of a stray cat doesn't need "At Long Last Love" to sing.
Blame it on the performers, all of whom are strong enough to convey the text (and subtext) without music. David Ackroyd, the show's primary narrator, is Hemingway incarnate, in both attitude and appearance, while his female counterpart, Ann Crumb, provides the musical interludes with attractive singing and great expressiveness. (Marsh Hanson accompanies on the piano.) Jessica D. Turner Daniel Freedom Stewart have smaller roles, but handle them well, and Ryan Shively brings a youthful exuberance to his performance, giving recurring Hemingway character Nick Adams a face, voice, and a highly believable portrayal. (He's one of the primary characters in the exemplary "The Three Day Blow.")
But while the second act (containing "The Three Day Blow") is stronger than the first, songs aside, It Just Catches is captivating and cohesive, bursting with color and atmosphere, springing as if from the pages of Hemingway's work. It's that aspect that Hastings, Carol Hemingway, and the show's designers - Riccardo Hernandez and Duane Schuler have designed their respective sets and costumes primarily in sepia tones, with David C. Woolard's costumes providing splashes of color set against them - get precisely right.
While Hemingway did write one play for the stage (The Fifth Column, which is included here), and another (A Farewell to Arms) received a Broadway adaptation, Hemingway generally eschewed the spirit of collaboration in favor of the more solitary aspects his other writing allowed. It Just Catches has found the theatricality in his writings and allowed them to live onstage in a vibrant, exciting manner that pays great tribute to the great artist and the body of work he left behind.
It Just Catches