Tender is the Night

Aug 13 2014 | 03:10 AM

    Zelda once said that The Sun Also Rises was about “bullfighting, bull slinging and bullshit.” If you don’t recognize either the name or the reference, then the White Horse Theater Company’s revival of Tennessee William’s rarely produced Clothes for a Summer Hotel isn’t the show for you. But if you know that Zelda was Mrs. F. Scott Fitzgerald, and that her remark is one of the few recorded salvos she fired in a bitter feud with Ernest Hemingway, then you’ll find much to appreciate in Williams’ self-described “ghost play.”

    Not that Williams saw fit to add Zelda’s zinger to his script. He brought to Scott and Zelda’s doomed relationship his own particular focus on the effects of aging and the artistic temperament. At times, his Zelda can seem more like a classic Tennessee Williams character than the woman who still exemplifies the Roaring ‘20s.

    Surprisingly, Kristen Vaughan manages to reconcile the real Zelda (for those of us in the audience familiar with her tragic trajectory) with Williams’ vision of her. Suffocating as the wife of “eminent author” Scott Fitzgerald (Peter J. Crosby), who has forbidden her to use writing as her creative outlet, Zelda has come to terms with life in a North Carolina asylum until Scott appears for a visit. But things aren’t as simple as they may seem at first in Williams’ play; Scott keeps complaining of cardiac episodes and Zelda has premonitions of death in a fire.

    The problem with the play remains that the show makes little sense for anyone watching who doesn’t have an almost exhaustive knowledge of the Fitzgeralds and their milieu (Gerald and Sara Murphy, played here by Tom Cleary and Lisa Riegel, pop up several times without explanation as to who they were). Both Scott and Zelda eventually succumbed to what Williams’ has turned into foreshadowing; Zelda’s body was only identifiable after a fire burned down the sanitarium she was staying in by a slipper beneath the body.

    But for those familiar with Scott and Zelda, Clothes for a Summer Hotel contains many small and pleasurable jewels that have finally been given the polish they deserve. Despite director Cyndy A. Marion’s sometimes-awkward staging (a result of the small theater more than anything else) and some bizarre directorial choices, this ghost play can sometimes come to thrilling theatrical life. Never mind the man playing a female nurse or the bitchy nuns dressed in what look like Stevie Nicks’ discarded velvet robes (the abysmal costumes are from Adam Coffia); Marion proves adept at Williams’ hyper-theatrical style, one which was rarely as hyper as in this work. And she’s ably assisted by Vaughan’s stellar performance as Zelda, one that is both heartbreakingly innocent and clear-eyed.

    Still, the roles of Zelda and Scott cry out for larger-than-life performers (Geraldine Page originated the role on Broadway), and in that aspect both Vaughn and Crosby are disappointing. The emotions are there, the subtext is scribbled all over Vaughan’s face (she sometimes looks remarkably like the real Zelda), but that special oomph is missing. Without it, the show lacks the necessary feeling of high tragedy, and Scott and Zelda turn into just another couple who couldn’t make it work, albeit one whose problems included the disdain of Ernest Hemingway (played with appropriate ball-busting arrogance by Rod Sweitzer). But Clothes for a Summer Hotel has a particular melancholy pleasure to it as an excuse to delve once more into the world of Scott and Zelda, and the welcome opportunity to see that Tennessee Williams never quite lost his knack for playwriting, even after the critics dismissed him.

    >Clothes for a Summer Hotel Through Feb. 21, Hudson Guild Theatre, 441 W. 26th St. (betw. 9th & 10th Aves.), 212-868-4444; $18.