There’s been a sparkling host of F. Scott Fitzgerald plays of late; at the other end of the spectrum in all senses from the marathon eight-hour Gatz is this slight piece, exploring the latter days of his troubled wife, Zelda.
The setting is at first hard to divine; even for a ‘prestigious institution’ the American mental hospital is rather swish about the decor, boasting an inexplicable and empty glass fronted cabinet and wallpaper florid enough to provoke yellow-tinted nightmares. Zelda is alone, scribbling away for the one hour in which she is allowed paper and pencil, reminiscing about her past and rereading old letters. These letters provide the structure of the play, in so far as there is one, which works loosely chronologically through her marriage, from the wild days of the French Riviera to the bitterness and estrangement of the present day, with an increasingly alienated Scott away writing screenplays for Hollywood, too busy even to send her his latest novel.
Kelly Burke is strong in the title role, taking on with vigour the challenge of carrying a one woman show that, even at 55 minutes, sometimes feels light on material. She is utterly believable as a brittle socialite in hibernation, and the play’s most successful moments come from her ecstatic relivings of parties past, spinning in revolving doors, drinking too much and playing solipsistic games of mutual infatuation. The glory days, though, are all too brief; the script could do with more moments of fun, however familiar they may be to the devoted Fitzgerald acolyte. Instead, it gets mired in letters, letters, letters, with the sheets of paper scattered over the asylum carpet a kind of threat or presentiment of the long interludes of the play based on Zelda reading aloud missives to and from her increasingly estranged husband.
There is nothing wrong with relying, as this play does, on documentary evidence and research, but here it feels too slavish, sacrificing drama and tension to hanging on the every documented word of the visible and invisible protagonists. In particular, this approach falls down when it comes to dealing with Zelda’s madness; sticking to the letters means that when the text slips off piste at the very end of the play to try and address her schizophrenia, supposedly the reason for her confinement, it comes off as a tacked-on addition, a kind of ‘she was mad all along’ twist.
One of the most praiseworthy elements of this production is its ability to take Zelda seriously as a person in her own right, casting her attempts, late in life, to become a professional ballet dancer as a serious endeavour conveyed with agonising intensity by Burke’s performance, not a self-deluding frivolity.
At times, though, this partisan approach comes across as rather heavy-handed, particularly in the question of Scott’s use of Zelda’s story and illness in Tender is the Night, mawkishly contrasting the sweetness of her letters with the anguish she really feels. The text buzzes around big issues like a moth on a lightbulb, seldom becoming profound, and lacking real insight into the ethics of the couple’s semi-autobiographical projects, into the nature of mental illness, into the boundaries between truth and fiction. Light and fizzy as an East Egg cocktail, this play slips down easily enough but it leaves no aftertaste.