Tennessee Williams and F. Scott Fitzgerald had much in common: a certain American lyricism, a longing for romance, a devotion to the Southern woman, and a bent toward self-destruction
in their later years after they had created their imperishable work. Clothes for a Summer Hotel
, Williams's meditation on Fitzgerald and his wife Zelda, was his last play produced on Broadway; it ran for only fifteen performances in 1980 with Geraldine Page playing Zelda. I can't really imagine the Page of 1960 attempting this part, let alone the eccentric bag lady grande dame Page of 1980, but I'm sure she gave it her all, just as Kristen Vaughan goes all out as Zelda in this new production of the play at the Hudson Guild Theatre (through February 21). Vaughan rips into her role as any famished actress would when confronted with a classically written Williams heroine, but her expressive and emotionally specific performance cannot enliven the play's deadly lack of focus, its consistent beating around the bush, and its wishful oversimplification of a complicated marriage and artistic partnership.
Williams's main theme here is that Fitzgerald leached the life out of Zelda for his books and stifled her own artistic growth. That's a well-worn case by now, and it has some validity, but Williams hammers too relentlessly at Scott and glorifies Zelda's truth telling in a way that doesn't feel either helpful or believable. Worse, he stops his play cold for an excruciating exchange between Fitzgerald and his rival pal Ernest Hemingway where the two writers keep talking about their own femininity as revealed in their various short stories; it's one of the worst scenes Williams ever wrote, a meandering, half-bored sniffing out of the repressed gay leanings of the two most famous American novelists of the twenties and thirties. The players surrounding Vaughan's first-rate performance are often of an uneasy, community theater-like caliber, and their shortcomings makes this late Williams play even harder to take (the statuesque Mary Goggin works hard to get a few laughs as Mrs. Patrick Campbell, but Peter J. Crosby is so stiff and unconvincing as Scott that he makes the drawn-out confrontations with Zelda seem worse than they are). If you have a heart, you have to love Williams, and I have great respect for some of his later plays, especially Small Craft Warnings
, but Clothes for a Summer Hotel
reveals him at a low ebb where you can hear only the faintest echoes of his talent.
(photo credit: Joe Bly)