at Cafe Voltaire

We love our writers, when we notice them at all, not for what they write, but for what they stand for. And we fall out of love with them for pretty much the same reason. F. Scott Fitzgerald was extraordinarily popular in the 1920s as the hard-drinking, high-living writer who chronicled and epitomized the Jazz Age–and then was shunned as a living symbol of all that had gone wrong with America when boom turned to Depression and his personal life went smash.

Set in a seedy hotel in Hendersonville, North Carolina, where Fitzgerald had retreated after a rest cure in Asheville turned into a summer-long drunk, Tom Webb’s one-man show A Restless Night With F. Scott Fitzgerald catches the writer at one of the lowest points in his career–August 1935. The end of the summer when alcoholism, tuberculosis, neurosis, and a series of personal crises, not the least of which was Zelda’s descent into madness, brought on a complete physical and mental breakdown.

It was during this “dark night of the soul,” Fitzgerald later wrote in a series of personal essays, that he realized he’d been “drawing on resources [he] did not possess,” “mortgaging [himself] physically and spiritually to the hilt,” and he “cracked like an old plate.” Webb uses these essays–“The Crack-Up,” “Sleeping and Waking,” and “Early Success”–which first appeared in Esquire and later in book form, as the main sources for his show. The portrait that emerges is not easy to watch.

The Fitzgerald of this time, as he himself admitted, was a bitter, angry, wounded man, cut off from everything that had made his 20s seem carefree–money, love, hope, youth–and unable to make the leap into a new life. His writing from this period is crabbed, stagnant, self-pitying, self-obsessed. His prose rarely soars, as it does in the most sublime passages of The Great Gatsby, and all too often descends into a morbid brooding that says a lot about the advanced stages of alcoholism. Whole passages from “The Crack-Up” sound like nothing so much as the ranting of what my aunt the chemical-dependency counselor calls “dry drunks,” people who’ve been alcoholics so long they can’t escape the “stinkin’ thinkin”‘ of an alcohol-soaked brain even when sober.

Webb’s years of experience onstage and as a radio announcer have given his voice a wonderful resonance and flexibility that bring out every nuance in Fitzgerald’s best writing–as when he describes with breathtaking clarity the Zelda he fell in love with: “[She] comes up to people when she meets them as if she were going to kiss them on the mouth, or walk right through them, looking them straight in the eyes–then stops a bare foot away and says her Hello, in a very disarming understatement of a voice.”

But Webb’s vocal gifts also make Fitzgerald’s dry-drunk rants all the more uncomfortable. Passages that might have been misread as humorous on the page become undeniably dark and even nasty. This is never more striking than at the end of the show, when Webb’s Fitzgerald states, “I realized that . . . every act of life from the morning tooth-brush to the friend at dinner had become an effort. . . . I saw that for a long time I had not liked people and things, but only followed the rickety old pretense of liking. . . . I became bitter about such things as the sound of the radio, the advertisements in magazines, the screech of tracks, the dead silence of the country.” And on and on he complains until I couldn’t decide whether to weep for the man or run screaming from the theater.

Webb makes clear in the program that this is a work in progress and that soon he’ll add a second act focusing on Fitzgerald’s last years in Hollywood. Though I greatly admire Webb’s craft as an actor–from the first moment of the show he’s every synapse Fitzgerald–I can’t help but hope he finds a few comic passages to lighten up a black-on-black portrait.