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The myth of the hedonistic Twenties and the ensuing tragedy of the Thirties is an enduring one in American life. The story of their literary spokesman, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and his decline is one of the most symbolic themes around which to tell the tale of two decades. As much as any individual experience in modern life, the saga of F. Scott Fitzgerald is a fit subject for tragedy.
Budd Suhulberg realized the significance of his subject in writing his The Disenchanted, a novel based on Schulberg's trip with Fitzgerald to the Dartmouth Winter Carnival to write a script for a pot-boiler movie comedy. Yet just as Schulburg found it difficult to give direction and intellectual plausbility to his novel, he has failed to produce a coherent and meaningful play.
The major difficulty of the play is that it tries to encompass too much; it includes too many themes. It attempts to explore the spirit of the Twenties, the antagonisms between the Twenties and the Thirties, the decline of a human being, the conflict between the creative writer and the movie Mammon, and the love and failure in love of a man and a woman. Some of this material, such as the conflict between the Twenties and Thirties, does not seem especially important a quarter of a century later.
Much of the other material is covered in flashbacks, which, although often skillfully executed, greatly distract from the play's effect and continuity. The Disenchanted would be a much better play if most, if not all, of these flashbacks were eliminated. For most literate spectators, it is not necessary to review the spirit of the Twenties or the life of Fitzgerald. For most, that decade and its Fitzgerald and Zelda evoke more images and emotions than the flashback could ever portray.
The Disenchanted is mainly interesting for its biographical material, but this places a greater load on its performers. Jason Robards Jr., as Manley Halliday, turns in a striking performance, especially in the later acts, but it hardly seems plausible that he could ever have been the Golden Boy of the Twenties. Rosemary Harris, as Jere, does not quite demonstrate the qualities which would induce Manley's devotion.
The acting of George Grizzard, as Shep Stearns, the young writer who accompanies Halliday, is usually a hindrance, especially in the beginning. Gizzard continually overacts and, like many of the other performers, including Robards, mistakes volume for intensity. At many points, the grating quality of Stearns' performance, make audience participation impossible. Stearns' best moments are his comedy scenes with Robards, and these scenes form the most memorable part of the play. This is, in a sense, unfortunate, since The Disenchanted is not meant to be a comedy.
One of the best acting jobs in that of Whitfield Connor playing Victor Milgrim, the Mephistophelean movie producer. Jason Robards Sr. gives an equally moving performance as Hallidy's benevolent publisher. This is the senior Robards' first appearance on the stage in nineteen years. The rest of the supporting roles are adequately handled, as is David Pressman's direction. The multi-purpose sets of Ben Edwards deserve special attention.
For it is indeed disappointing to see the failure of a play whose material offers such great possibilities. Unless The Disenchanted undergoes major rewriting, it will remain a clearly unsatisfactory effort.
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