When Clothes for a Summer Hotel premiered in New York City in 1980, the world wasn’t quite able to wrap their mind around the play. It closed after 15 performances and was Tennessee Williams’ last Broadway production. With a myriad of plays that changed the face of modern theatre across the world, winning everything from a Pulitzer Prize (twice) to a Tony Award, one would think the man would have been given a little artistic license. Alas, no. People were not ready for this “Ghost Play”; and the fact that it’s been re-mounted in New York City only one other time since its original opening is a testament to the stigma surrounding it. It’s a play that is very tricky to pull off properly, and I’m still not sure if White Horse Theatre Company was able to do that.
The play focuses on the lives of F. Scott Fitzgerald (Peter J. Crosby) and his wife Zelda (beautifully played by Kristen Vaughan), in a “if the two could have met as ghosts one last time” scenario on the grounds of the Asheville, NC mental health asylum where Zelda died in a fire. The asylum, as well as all of the people in the play, are ghosts of a kind or another; some moments you don’t know if the people are memories of ghosts, or the ghosts of memory. Time shifts and morphs around the characters, shedding light on events that had profound effect on them – mostly involving the Fitzgeralds and their relationships with Edouard Jozan (a touching Montgomery Sutton) as Zelda’s lover at one time, and Ernest Hemmingway (Rod Sweitzer) with whom F. Scott had a bittersweet friendship.
Mr. Williams wrote in the author’s note: “This is a ghost play. Our reason for taking extraordinary license with time and place is that in an asylum … liberties of this kind are quite prevalent; …(they) allow us to explore in more depth what we believe is truth of character.” One has an idea of the time frame when looking at a flashback to their lives, but then we realize that these “ghosts” are actually reliving memories…and are aware of it, on some conscious level. Zelda reminds the audience of this when she says lines to Edouard such as “I felt even your memory with passion”, referring to the encounter that just played out moments before.
All of this points to a play that is already ethereal and up in the air, so to speak, so it needs to have a firm grounding of the characters on which to land. In a play where the characters are ghosts and the time/space continuum is folding on itself, the audience more than ever needs to have actors truly dealing with each other and characters sharing moments from their lives; the believability of what they feel is so important, because it is the life buoy of reality in an extremely surreal piece. What makes the piece surreal are the circumstances and given situation; but the characters have very flesh and blood emotional turmoil and they have very human experiences.
I felt that there were too many times the actors were playing to the audience (more than simply the effects of a stylized piece) and delivering lines, when they could have been having a conversation. Cyndy A. Marion has worked hard to bring this piece to life, and I applaud the effort, but I do look to the director for moments like this as much as the actors. Things I felt stood out were moments such as: the majority of Sweitzer’s dialogue was delivered to us, and though I understand the structure behind it in the beginning, it distanced me too much from the character. Another was Crosby yelling at Vaughan constantly, to the point that I was so thankful when he was gone from the scene. I also felt that he was weaving all over the place, no matter what the point of reference; and though I understand that he is a man suffering from both alcoholism and a failed heart, some moments I felt it took away from what was going on, and became overacting – not heightened reality. However, the funny thing was that when we finally got both actors alone at the end of the party, really talking to each other simply, and really having intimate emotions, I was moved. It was the first time I really cared for either of the men – but when I did, it was amazing.
The constant rock of believability as surreal character and broken woman was Vaughan. She brought a foundation of truth within the ethereal planes that was the perfect combination to both believe and get lost in. The chemistry between Vaughan and Sutton really worked, and Sutton brings a warmth and tenderness to his character that gives it other dimensions. Through their scenes we learn more about how deeply this affair touched Zelda, how Sutton’s stance of keeping it an affair by the book effected her mental health, and they were deeply moving.
The sound design (David Schulder) and lighting design (Debra Leigh Siegel) were wonderful in heightening the effects of this Ghost Asylum. John C. Scheffler’s set design had some interesting choices that tried to stay as true as possible to the original script, and I applaud the efforts. Unfortunately, I was actually taken aback by the choice of the strips of material (it looked like paper streamers) that was used as the backdrop and the majority of the set; I think a see-through sheer fabric, draped, would have been so much better. The only reason I’m mentioning it is because there were times the set took me out of the piece because it stood out like a sore thumb instead of taking me along for the ride.
The fact that White Horse Theatre Company has made a niche for itself by routinely mounting classic work such as Williams should be noted and appreciated. The evening was mixed for me, because I often found myself waiting for a payoff; I would go along for a while through portions that made me grit my teeth, and then I would find myself delighted by the work. I can’t say that it truly worked, but I did enjoy myself many times during the performance. It should be seen, if anything to see a fascinating play that rarely gets done because it is so difficult to do.
~~~Clothes for a Summer Hotel Feb 5th – Feb 21, 2010 Tuesdays through Saturdays 8:00pm Sundays 3:00pm Hudson Guild Theatre 441 W 26th St. New York, NY 212-760-9812 Take the 1 train to 23rd Street; C, E trains to 23rd Street. Ticket Price: $18.00; $9.00 student rush Tickets by Phone: 212-868-4444 http://www.WhiteHorseTheater.com