Credit: Liz Lauren

The last time Stacy Keach tried this, things didn’t go well.

On May 30, 2017, Keach was onstage at Goodman Theatre, playing Ernest Hemingway in the opening night of the world premiere production of Jim McGrath’s Pamplona when he had what was later described as a “mild heart attack.” He appeared confused and unfocused, repeated passages of his evening-length monologue over and over, as if trying to latch back onto it. Soon enough he left the stage and director Robert Falls declared the show over.

Now Keach is back in what I guess we’ll have to call Pamplona’s second world premiere. On press night both he and his Hemingway came across like old leather, well worn but strong. McGrath’s script, meanwhile, is merely serviceable.

Pamplona catches Papa in 1959, holed up alone in a Spanish hotel room, working on the assignment for Life magazine that would ultimately become his final book, The Dangerous Summer, an account of the epic rivalry between two great bullfighters, Antonio Ordóñez and Luis Miguel Dominguín. Everything is catching up with him: his drinking, his womanizing, his family traumas, his many injuries, and the vast psychic lacunae that make him at once so great and so terrible. On top of all that, he’s got writer’s block.

Like most solo shows involving a visit with a historical figure, Pamplona never answers the obvious, elephant-not-in-the-room question, Who does Hemingway think he’s talking to? You simply have accept the premise and settle in for a chipper, mostly sentimental 90-minute journey that, thanks to Adam Fleming’s projections, sometimes feels like a PowerPoint presentation. The ending completes an inevitable metaphor in an inevitable way, but Keach engages it with such gusto that it’s a delight to witness.  v