You don’t have to be an English Major—or even a recent graduate—to enjoy this romp among literary giants in American Lit, a collection of five one-act plays, written and directed by James F. Bruns and playing at the Capital Fringe this month.
According to Bruns—who credits the play’s birth to a chance encounter with Tennessee Williams some 35 years ago—it was Norman Mailer who wrote that American Literature began with Ernest Hemingway.
Played by Mike Kelly with youthful passion, Hemingway laments his exile into the hinterlands, but warms to the idea of playing baseball with the local team.
The second play, called The Cain Scrutiny, reveals a demoralized James M. Cain—once the most famous screenwriter in Hollywood—huddled in Hyattsville, Md, struggling to find a publisher for a novel about the Civil War.
Movingly portrayed by Geoffrey Brand, Cain struggles to explain to his wife, Flo (a beautifully bored Ashley Amidon), that he cannot return to the life of parties and premieres. Ben Norcross is an adoring postman—a comic antidote to Cain’s most celebrated film, The Postman Rings Twice – who also loves I Love Lucy.
James Jones, author of From Here to Eternity, never actually appears in his putative play—called The Writers’ Colony–but his success is flaunted by a ferocious Lowney Handy, head of the Handy Colony in Illinois. Andra Witt, who plays the writing teacher from hell, forces a young would-be writer (Matt Succi) to type masterpieces, such as Eternity, in order to learn how to write transitions.
In the fourth play, Gary Cramer is extraordinary as an aging, fearful Tennessee Williams, hunkered down in Key West with booze and pills as his friends. An invitation by a brash Gore Vidal (Dwayne Allen) to meet JFK triggers an emotional memory of his once having met Hemingway, who is now dead.
The ghost of Hemingway is center stage in the last one act play, called, appropriately enough, The Last Bullfighter.
Norman Mailer, the bete noir of American Lit—both the literary genre and this play—is drunk and violent as he poses, in bullfight regalia, at a party to celebrate his decision to run for mayor of the City of New York.
Played ferociously by Ffiras Natour, Mailer gets into a fight with Granville Hicks—the critic who called Mailer’s tour de force “a conspicuous failure” —then turns on his wife, Adele (a sizzling Heather Norcross), as all the other guests, and the audience, look on in horror.
Of course, as Mailer himself pointed out, these giants of American Lit are all men. The women in their lives, acquiescing to their heroes or trying to straighten them out, are less vivid. Kirstin K. Apker as Pauline Hemingway and Marsha Rehns as her mother are both excellent in relatively limited roles.
The lighting by Donna Reynolds and the simple set design—often featuring a silent typewriter in the rear—help bring this series of vignettes to life. The plays take us from Depression era middle America to Manhattan’s upper west side in the 60s.
While “American Lit” ends with Mailer—in more ways than one—it is “Papa” Hemingway who drifts, like Hamlet’s ghost, into the memories of the others.
Presented by Lights, Theatre, Action!, a group of actors who perform with the Little Theatre of Alexandria, American Lit is a lively romp between the lines—and lives—of literary heroes dealing with death, disappointment or writer’s block.
S. Jenks & Son—the giant hardware emporium newly situated in a former car dealer’s showroom in the heart of a revitalized Trinidad area—is an appropriate setting for American Lit, Artful Justice, and many other Capitol Fringe plays.
Running Time: 80 minutes.
Note: Jerry Siegel, whose family has owned Jenks since 1962, is a theatre-loving proprietor who is offering a 10% discount on everything in the story for anyone bearing a “Fringe 2015” button.