The White Horse Theater Company, no doubt hoping to reproduce its success with Tennessee Williams’s In the Bar of a Tokyo Hotel from 2007, has come a cropper with another Hotel play. Since its mission statement declares a focus to be “the lost works of great American playwrights that were not successfully received the first time in production,” the company’s intent to forage through flops is bound, on occasion, to confirm the deserved obscurity of some play or other. Cyndy A. Marion’s production of Clothes for a Summer Hotel doesn’t leave much doubt that Williams’s take on the golden couple of the 1920s and ’30s—F. Scott Fitzgerald and his wife, Zelda—is plain dull. Indeed, the string of late flops that so disheartened Williams—in addition to the two Hotel plays were The Red Devil Battery Sign, Small Craft Warnings, The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore, and Kingdom of Earth—have not lacked for attempts at rescue. On occasion, too, as with Tokyo Hotel, there’s enough to engage one’s interest. But Williams’s Clothes, which he labeled “a ghost play,” lurches from a visit by Scott Fitzgerald to Zelda’s asylum to a snapshot of their marriage to her affair with a young Frenchman to a party given by Gerald and Sara Murphy (another 1920s golden couple), at which Mrs. Patrick Campbell and the Hemingways are present.
Williams has written the play in a style akin to the surrealistic Camino Real. Early on, Zelda, encouraged by an intern to see Scott, asks, “Why should this be demanded of me now after all the other demands. I thought that obligations stopped with death!” Yet if the characters are all ghosts, what need is there to mix up the time frame with flashbacks out of sequence? Scenes seemingly fluctuate between reality and reminiscence. It's a weird conceit.
Director Marion has added bizarre flourishes. A nurse is played by a towering actor in drag, and nuns dressed in rich, burgundy cassocks and Flying Nun headdresses wear lipstick. Marion may intend those touches to indicate that some scenes are more surreal than others, yet they prove more confusing to an already strange script.
But the writing has more than structural problems. Williams reworks much that’s familiar from earlier, better plays. He flings out animal symbols heavy-handedly: there’s a salamander and a hawk here, to add his menagerie of bird, cat, nightingales and iguana in better plays. The familiar trope of the faded Southern belle and twin curses of insanity and nymphomania recur here as well, though by the time it was written (1980) Williams could have a nude scene open the second act—“except for whatever conventions of stage propriety may be in order.” (For the record, White Horse does not require the actors playing Zelda and her much younger lover to shed everything.) Still, too much feels like recycled ideas.
It doesn't help that neither of the Fitzgeralds in the production is terribly compelling. Peter J. Crosby, dapperly dressed by Adam Coffia in the summer outfit of the title, finds plenty of ego, bad temper, frustration, and pettiness in Scott, but little that one can warm to. “I had to discourage her attempts to compete with me as a writer,” Scott confesses to Gerald in the first scene, hardly an attitude to endear him to a modern, post-feminist audience. And Crosby, if he has made an attempt to find a sympathetic aspect in the character, comes up empty-handed.
Williams himself feels more warmly toward Zelda, and although Kristen Vaughan’s portrayal presents evidence of the character’s anguish and desperate need for love, which she does manage to convey, the actress herself has a habit of dropping her projection on the ends of lines, so that many of them dwindle into unintelligible burbling. Unfortunately, this adds another obstacle to figuring out what Williams is up to.
The remainder of the acting ranges from mediocre to quite accomplished—Mary Goggin is an intelligent and charming Mrs. Patrick Campbell, and Tom Cleary is a fine Gerald Murphy. Montgomery Sutton, who also plays an intern, fares pretty well as Zelda’s lover Edouard, with a precise French accent and genuine concern for her emotions as well as her reputation, although he looks too young and callow for a seasoned aviator.
Late in the play, during the Murphys’ party (on Aug. 3, 1924, the day of Joseph Conrad’s death, which distresses Scott immeasurably), Williams veers off into exploring the sexual orientation of both Fitzgerald and Hemingway. He seems convinced that Fitzgerald, stunningly handsome in real life, was a repressed homosexual enamored of Hemingway (a bullish Rod Sweitzer, dressed nattily in tweed); it is, of course, a charge also leveled at Hemingway. And it may be that Fitzgerald’s ruthless attempts to dominate Zelda were a veiled attempt to assert his masculinity, but the cat-and-mouse talk about sexuality and writers’ jealousy feels dragged in from a different play and doesn’t help this lumbering production.
Whether the ambitious White Horse has let down Williams, or vice versa, is hard to say. But although it's daring to comb through works that have failed outright (as opposed to being neglected) in hopes of finding a lost gem, the odds are probably against it.