Edwin Cahill and Gardner Reed in a scene from Zelda at the Oasis
(Photo credit: Carol Rosegg)
Zelda Fitzgerald once said, “To be young and beautiful for a long time. That is what I want.” But fate had other ideas, and the unlucky lady, locked in a room waiting for electro shock therapy, died at age 48 in the Highland Mental Hospital in Asheville, North Carolina. A fire spread throughout the hospital and poof she was gone. The year was 1948.
As far as Zelda’s husband, the great American novelist and short story writer, F. Scott Fitzgerald, an unrepentant alcoholic since his college days, he died of a massive heart attack at age 44. The year was 1940. At the time, a down and out Hollywood script writer begging for jobs, he was living with gossip columnist Sheila Graham.
Though both Fitzgeralds lived fast, furiously, and famously, and died in their forties, their larger-than-life legend, as portrayed in film, stage, and books, with varying degrees of success, has kept their names, front and center, alive and kicking for nearly three-quarters of a century.
And why not? The once dubbed “Golden Couple” who went though life, here and abroad, nursing countless bottles of booze while writing about each other’s escapades, that is, when they could, is an extremely captivating story, one that filled pages of print, and supplied much gossip, during the Roaring Twenties, the Jazz Age and the so-called Lost Generation.
The first man out of the gate to resuscitate the dead Fitzgerald’s was Budd Schulberg, a fellow screenwriter who had collaborated with Scott in Hollywood on the 1939 film, Winter Carnival. Schulberg wrote The Disenchanted (1950) which presented an F. Scott Fitzgerald as an inspired alcoholic failure. This was followed in 1951 by Arthur Mizener’s The Far Side of Paradise, a biography of Fitzgerald which largely blamed Zelda’s mental health for his lost potential.
A play of The Disenchanted opened on Broadway in 1958, the same year that Sheila Graham published her memoir Beloved Infidel which detailed Fitzgerald’s last years. In 1959, a film by the same name saw Gregory Peck playing Scott.
In all of these presentations Zelda was treated as an appendage, an accessory to the fact, as well as the reason for her husband’s precipitous decline. It wasn’t until 1970 with Nancy Milford’s best selling book Zelda: A Biography, that Zelda, recast as an artist in her own right, a woman whose talents, dancing, painting, and writing in particular were belittled by a controlling husband, was given a life of her own.
Thus Zelda became an icon of the feminist movement in the 1970s—a woman whose unappreciated potential had been suppressed by patriarchal society.
Other writers have tackled the Fitzgerald legend, most notably Tennessee Williams’ play Clothes for a Summer Hotel which featured Geraldine Page as Zelda. Drawing heavily on Mitford’s book, it opened on Broadway at Cort Theatre in 1980 and closed to bad reviews two weeks later.
Lately Zelda and Scott have been reduced to cameo film appearances — most recently in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris (2011).
As far as Scott and Zelda’s own writings, The Great Gatsby (1925) – The Great American Novel – required reading in high schools and colleges to this day, sells well over a million copies a year, while Zelda’s own autobiographically-based Save Me the Waltz (1932), written in six weeks while being treated at the Phipps Clinic at John Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, has grown in reputation by leaps and bounds.
Currently bringing Zelda back in all her glory at St. Luke’s Theatre is Zelda at the Oasis, a new play by P. H. Lin. Commissioned from the F. Scott Fitzgerald Centennial Committee of Rockville, Maryland, the final resting place of Zelda and Scott, this Zelda is to be part of their F. Scott Fitzgerald 100th Birthday Celebration.
The play, set sometime in the 1930s, opens with Zelda (Gardner Reed) downing drinks at The Club Oasis, a New York City bar. It is closing time and the bartender (Edwin Cahill) is doing his best to get Zelda, who wants more booze and more talk, to leave.
That he doesn’t succeed, allows Zelda, with Cahill playing many roles, both male and female, to relive all of the major events – far too sketchily so — in her life.
We get to meet her husband Scott in several scenes, a reporter, her doctor, her husband’s rival Ernest Hemingway, her mother, her ballet teacher, and a French lover, all being played, when he is not the piano-playing bartender, by Mr. Cahill. The bartender is the only character that he brings believably to life, and wonderfully so.
His portrayal of the other characters with slight disguises, provided by costumer, Dustin Cross, a pair of glasses, a scarf, a hat, and phony accents, are dismal, an embarrassment actually, for the audience, and most likely for the actor as well.
Though Reed speaks well, moves well, dances around the stage quite nicely, and telegraphs all the pain that Zelda is going through, the ‘paint by numbers’ script with its alternating scenes between past and present, real and imagined – this does get quite confusing – is far too shallow to allow Reed, Cahill or the workman-like direction of Andy Sandberg to shine.
Like bad dancing, one could see how the actors try to smooth out their transition, from one scene to the next, in search of a dramatic heartbeat. But the writing signals the coming of each change before the actor has a chance to slip into character. Worse, we are being told everything we already know. Not a surprise or revelation in sight.
This said the atmospheric bar and piano set and lighting by Colin McGurk and Grant Yeager, respectively, is spot-on perfect. If only the play followed suit.
Zelda at the Oasis (open run)
St. Luke’s Theatre, 208 West 46th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-239-6200 or visit http://www.Telecharge.com or http://www.zeldaoasis.com