Babylon Revisited, adapted from the story by F. Scott Fitzgerald by Donald Marcus and Anthony Nikolchev. Directed by Donald Marcus and Anthony Nikolchev. Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman.
"I'm here for four to five days."
Doria Bramante, Anthony Nikolchev, Ryan Winkles; photo: provided
There is a sense of desperation in his voice as he utters those words. His time is limited and his goal is time-sensitive. He wants his daughter back from the people who have legal rights to her, his sister-in-law and her husband. He is a reformed man, back in Paris for this one reason only; Paris was the scene of his disaster and his loss, the death of his wife, the drunken rampage which encompassed his days and nights. He is sober now, only one drink a day; he is lonely now, no one to hold or love or help him through the loneliness. He is settled now with an apartment in Prague. He is Charles Wales, a thinly disguised F. Scott Fitzgerald.
"Babylon Revisited" is Fitzgerald's 1931 story, a turning point piece for the author who confesses his sins as the spokesman of the lost generation of the 1920s. Like so much of his work in this period there is a sense of the cut off humanity, the impossibility of expressing emotions, that keeps his writing clean, cleaner than his characters have ever been. He is an observer of the human comedy, rarely ever an honest participant. It is this element of the man's life and literature that the new play seen at Shakespeare and Company in Lenox, MA presents best.
The play is set in 1934 in a spare bedroom in Charlie's apartment. As he moves old furniture out or around hoping to create a fine room for his child, he relives the experience in Paris when he arrived, hoping to reclaim the girl. Played by Anthony Nikolchev, Charlie is a haunted man. He is alone with his memories of the experience and the ones that led up to it. He and co-director Donald Marcus have Charles interfacing with the people of his life through the medium of film. Everyone else is seen and heard on reflective surfaces around the stage. As real as they have been, they are now only memories and he can replay his time with them on the walls, mirrors, bedsheets and more that surround him. He has come away from Paris without little Norrie, his Honoria. Still, he works to make the room ready as he remembers and replays every moment of this personal story.
This should be very moving. It is certainly very sombre and very beautiful. Nikolchev plays well with the others, his rhythms guided by the accuracy that film insists upon. Fitzgerald makes emotional empathy very difficult, either when read or heard and this script is remarkably faithful to his writing style. Moments with his dead wife Helen, played by Jennifer Cavanaugh, are fleeting and unfulfilling. Scenes with her sister Marion Peters, played brilliantly and emotionally by Doria Bramante and her supportive husband Lincoln, played to perfection by Ryan Winkles, are perfectly rehearsed and delivered. These three filmed performances are well handled by the actor on stage as he reacts to them and sends them fleeing from the room they are in permanently in his mind.
Chloe Young; photo: provided
In the MGM film, "The Last Time I Saw Paris," based on this same story, Van Johnson and Elizabeth Taylor played Charlie and Helen with a bitter Donna Reed as her sister Marion. They brought a very personal sensibility to the script they were handed, a mite further away from the original story's shallow speeches. Here, the words almost get in the way of the drama and there is a good dramatic play in this material. Charlie's distance from the others, both physical as in Prague to Paris, and critical as in Live and Filmed, makes the emotional impact of the play almost as shallow as the story. It is a classic, so you could say that the play is as well. It provides everything except the impact that Fitzgerald had difficulty expressing.
Chloe Young plays Charlie's daughter with more human feeling than anyone else brings to the piece. She is charming and sweet and her emotional truthfulness can almost get you weepy. Similarly Patrick Toole as Duncan Schaeffer and Kelly Gavin as Lorraine Quarrles in their brief scenes bring a curious reality onto the stage during their filmed intrusions.
The direction of the stage sections of the play are excellent and the cinematics as directed by Ted Marcus are very special, effects made with punch and distant dynamics. In combination, and with the lighting designed by Robyn Warfield, sound designed by Stephen "Stitch" Keech and the video projection coordination by Rudi Bach, the result is a seamless memory play focused on the physical present but dominated by the recalled past. Technology is becoming theater and this one hour, one act play is looming large on that scene.
Thanks to the excellent work of Anthony Nikolchev, Chloe Young and the others this is a most memorable theatrical event, even if it isn't the most satisfying of human experiences. Its limited run in the Ark Theatre Company production in Studio One at the Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre is the most curious event of the season and one that should not be missed. It is possibly the harbinger of future performance styles. It is possibly just a one-of-a-kind show. You can't help admiring everyone who worked to make it possible.
Babylon Revisited plays in Studio One at the Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre at Shakespeare and Company, located at 70 Kemble Street, Lenox, MA through October 25. For tickets and information call the box office at 413-637-3353 or go on line to www.shakespeare.org.