Also see Sharon's review of The Home
Two people in a room fight for the affections of a third. But this isn't merely a love triangle; the combatants are fighting for their object's very soul, and his future. And the man at the center of the action is writer F. Scott Fitzgerald.
In Tender, having its world premiere at the Knightsbridge Theatre, playwright David Preece has created a work of historical fiction, imagining the interaction three real people may have had one night in 1926.
When the play opens, the lights come up on Fitzgerald, with a pen in one hand and a drink in the other. Two years have passed since the completion of his masterpiece The Great Gatsby, and he has not written another novel. Instead, he has spent his time writing short stories for magazines. The stories sell; he makes good money with them, but he is artistically unfulfilled.
His marriage to Zelda is turbulent. A spirited woman who married Fitzgerald as much to get out of Alabama as for love, she is unhappy but not for any rational reason. She's angry that her husband isn't writing a novel that would bring more fame, but is dependent on the money the short stories bring. Besides, part of her doesn't want him to write another novel, because she can't bear to be only the wife of a famous novelist; she needs her own success to be fully satisfied.
As played by understudy Julie Terrell, Zelda's frequent emotional outbursts are overplayed just enough to give the immediate impression that there's something not quite right here - perhaps it is alcohol or drugs, but there is some source of her words other than her heart. Alternating between throwing herself at Fitzgerald with happy memories of when they were passionately in love, and throwing cruel insults at him instead, Terrell's Zelda is in the emotional driver's seat in this relationship.
The third character in the piece is Ernest Hemingway, who comes to the Fitzgeralds' apartment for the ostensible purpose of seeking Fitzgerald's notes on his latest novel, but really has something else on his mind. Hemingway offers Fitzgerald an opportunity to concentrate fully on his novel - if only he's able to leave Zelda. While Zelda is not completely aware of Hemingway's plan, she knows enough to recognize him as an adversary for Fitzgerald's attention. Thus, the bulk of the play is devoted to the attempts of Zelda and Hemingway to convince Fitzgerald the other is unworthy of him, usually by pointing out the other's faults.
The contrast between Zelda and Hemingway, played by Beau Puckett, could not be more clear. Zelda wears satin pajamas covered by a fringed velvet dressing gown which, when she stretches out her arms, makes her look like nothing so much as a dancing carpet from a Disney musical. Her attacks on Hemingway are as sloppy as her appearance; her barbs are obvious and, as such, less effective. Hemingway is elegantly dressed and completely together. (Indeed, he's a good deal more polished than the image that comes to mind when one generally thinks of Hemingway.) Puckett delivers Hemingway's attacks smoothly and with subtlety. A silence follows some of his deadlier lines, as though to give his arrows a brief moment to bury themselves in their target.
Geoffrey Hillback has the least to do as Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald is not in the same league as Zelda and Hemingway when it comes to flat-out emotional war, and while he recognizes Zelda's obvious attacks (and frequently calls her on them), he is not observant enough to notice what Hemingway is doing.
It's an interesting evening, watching these two professionals fight totally different battles for the future of a man barely aware the fight is happening. But it lacks something that would truly engage the audience; it plays rather more like a clinical study of emotional warfare. Perhaps the piece would carry more intensity if it were not based on real people whose subsequent histories are well known to the audience. Surely, something is gained by basing the play on the Fitzgeralds and Hemingway, rather than three fictional characters. But it is possible that the gain is not worth the price of having the play's outcome never really in doubt.
Tender plays through August 24th on Fridays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at noon at the Knightsbridge Theatre L.A. For tickets, call (626) 440-0821. www.knightsbridgetheatre.com.
Tender by David Preece; Directed by Robert Craig. Producer Joseph Stachura; Associate Producer David John Preece; Composer Damian Montano; Costume Designer Shon LeBlanc; Stage Manager Vemi; Light & Sound Technician Mick McGill.
Photo by Robert Craig