This is a glowing review of the Allan Knee’s play, The Jazz Age. And unlike the Variety’s critic, this critic **gets** the meaning and message of the play.

Source: StageSceneLA.Com

The Jazz Age

Anyone needing ammunition against those who claim that there is no theater (i.e. great theater) in Los Angeles have only to invite the naysayers to The Blank’s production of The Jazz Age and lo and behold—crow will be eaten. Everything about this West Coast premiere of Allan Knee’s biodrama is first-class grade-A brilliant, from its direction (by Michael Matthews) to its superb trio of actors (Jeremy Gabriel, Luke Macfarlane, and Heather Prete) to its exquisite design to the above-stage band led by Ian Whitcomb.

The Jazz Age takes a look back at three of the most iconic figures of the first half of the 20th Century, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Zelda Fitzgerald, and Ernest Hemingway. Novelist Fitzgerald (The Great Gatsby, Tender Is The Night), his troubled wife (Alabama’s “golden girl” Zelda Sayre), and Hemingway (The Old Man And The Sea, For Whom The Bell Tolls), are already the stuff of legend. There’s Fitzgerald’s alcoholism, Zelda’s madness, and of course Hemingway’s macho big game hunter image. The Jazz Age gives us a glimpse at the real people behind their public personas as only intimate live theater can.

Knee’s play begins with Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald (Macfarlane), known to his friends as Scott, center stage lit by a single spot, quoting words of wisdom imparted from father to son. “Living well is the best revenge,” Scott’s father always told him, and Scott promised dad to live well, “even if it killed me.”

Fitzgerald soon meets Southern belle Zelda (Prete) at a ball. “Are you an intruder?” she asks him coquettishly. “You’re definitely not one of our crowd,” she continues. “I love intruders.” Scott introduces himself as the great-grandson of Francis Scott Key—with a family going all the way back to the Mayflower. This is not an accidental meeting, he tells her. He’s been watching her for weeks. Soon the pair begin exchanging secrets, each totally taken with the other, until Scott reveals the most intimate of them all. “I get hard just looking at you,” he confesses. “Everybody does,” replies Zelda, and a love story is born.

Fitzgerald’s first meeting with Hemingway (Gabriel) in Paris starts off on not quite so right a foot. “I wanted to find out what it’s like to be a success,” explains Ernest. “What is the chance of us being friends?” Scott asks. “None,” is Ernest’s terse reply.

Clearly, quite the opposite must be true, or there would be no The Jazz Age, and soon the two are bonding over the lives they’ve lived in Paris since The Great War. “Paris is like a woman after she’s been aroused. Moist. Fertile,” declares Ernest. “You’re beautiful. I hope that doesn’t offend you,” Scott replies, giving the first hint that the effete Fitzgerald may harbor more than just fraternal feelings for the über-masculine Hemingway. “You stir me,” continues Scott. “Make me want to do something dangerous.”

No two men could be more different, Fitzgerald bubbling over with excitement and passion for life, Hemingway grumpy, cynical, the epitome of machismo. Still, Scott’s talent seems to fascinate Ernest. “You write shit at times, but one can’t put you down,” he confesses, and sparks begin to fly between the two men. Soon Ernest is teaching Scott the latest dance craze and the two men find themselves ecstatically cutting the rug. “You tell anyone about this,” growls Ernest once the dance is through, “and I’ll break your fucking jaw.”

As The Jazz Age continues, we first follow Fitzgeralds’s path to success. There’s MGM’s interest in filming his novel, Vogue magazine’s calling Zelda and him “the stuff of legend.” These two are not just the life of the party, they are the party, though Zelda can’t seem to enjoy their success, always yearning for something out of her reach. There’s also Scott’s growing friendship with Ernest, and the attraction of the two men for each other, sexual or otherwise, is never far from the surface. Ernest teaches Scott to box, and in one particularly homoerotic scene, tells the gentler man to “throw the drink in my face. Show me I mean more to you than a drink.”

Hemingway may indeed mean more to Fitzgerald than a drink, but a drink is never far from his mouth. Ernest is both disgusted and confused by his friend’s constant need to imbibe, but Scott can no more give up alcohol than he can give up the need he feels for their particular brand of male bonding. Zelda is hardly unaware that something is going on between the two men, telling her husband that Hemingway “is the real love of your life.”

As the fortunes of one of the pair of writers fall, those of the other rise. Scott and Zelda love and fight and break up and reunite. Lies are told, and truths are too. With lives as complex as these and emotions so tangled up among three people, a happy ending is clearly not in the cards. Yes, this is the stuff of which legends are made.

With The Jazz Age, director Matthews once again proves himself one of Los Angeles’ most gifted talents, his staging revealing him to be both an actor’s director (performances as brilliant as these just don’t happen) and one with a fine sense of the visual. Working with the same design team that helped make his work at the Celebration Theatre so memorable, Matthews and crew make The Jazz Age one of the best looking productions I’ve seen at the Blank.

Still, it’s the performances that remain most etched in memory, three deeply gifted actors at the top of their craft.

It’s always an event when a successful film or TV actor returns to his stage roots, and this is certainly the case with Macfarlane, whose role as the coincidentally named Scotty on TV’s Brothers And Sisters has made him the kind of actor whose name sells tickets, one who is likely to have fans waiting at the stage door. Proving again that L.A. theater is created out of the love of the craft, Macfarlane (and others like him) gladly work for peanuts in order for the chance to work with a script like Knee’s, a director like Matthews, and a character like F. Scott Fitzgerald, a role which could have been written with Macfarlane in mind. Passionate, disarming, elegant, and charming, Macfarlane is all of them and more in a performance that grabs the audience’s attention, affection and sympathy from his first entrance and never lets go.

Opposite him is an actor of equal talent and charisma, the dynamic Jeremy Gabriel, whose work in 2007’s Heads was described by StageSceneLA as “an intensely forceful performance that has star written all over it” and was cited on our Best of 2006-7 lists as Lead Actor Of The Year/Drama. The same superlatives apply to Gabriel’s performance as Ernest Hemingway. With a powerful masculinity that never seems forced, his Ernest is everything Scott longs to be and to be with. A leading man in the classic tradition with acting chops to match, nowhere is this clearer than in Gabriel’s final monlog, which has both the actor and the audience in tears.

New to L.A. stages is the stunning Prete, who like Jessica Lange and Meryl Streep in their younger days combines a unique beauty and real depth as an actress. With a look that seems perfectly suited to The Jazz Age’s 1920s/30s setting, Prete goes from coquettish young debutante to jealous wife to (ultimately) institutionalized schizophrenic, begging in one of the play’s most powerful scenes to be taken off electroshock therapy. Expect to be seeing much more of Prete’s work.

Providing a movie-style soundtrack with his original period compositions is Whitcomb, backed by his Bungalow Boys, and this addition of live music makes The Jazz Age even more of an event, and more thrilling and enthralling for their participation.

Kurt Boetcher’s set design, in rich blues and wood tones ingeniously opens up in various configurations to represent the play’s many scene shifts with Tim Swiss’s lighting proving a perfect complement. Michael Mullen’s costumes and wigs are a pitch-perfect evocation of the era of the flapper turning into the 1930s.

As drama, as biography, as history, as a showcase for the acting and directing talents of Macfarlane, Gabriel, Prete, and Matthews, and as proof positive that Los Angeles theater is second to none, The Jazz Age is an enthralling winner all the way.

The Blank 2nd Stage Theatre, 6500 Santa Monica Boulevard, Hollywood. Through March 22. Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 8:00, Sundays at 2:00. Reservations: 323 661-9827

–Steven Stanley
February 15, 2009