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Stage Review

Alluring subject can't support 'Villa'

Sara Murphy (Jennifer Mudge), F. Scott Fitzgerald (Nate Corddry) and other glamorous characters inhabit 'Villa America,' a play by Crispin Whittell. Sara Murphy (Jennifer Mudge), F. Scott Fitzgerald (Nate Corddry) and other glamorous characters inhabit "Villa America," a play by Crispin Whittell. (Carol Rosegg)

WILLIAMSTOWN -- The Cote d'Azur in the '20s, Zelda and Scott, the gorgeously young Hemingway, Picasso, Cole Porter, cocktails and espadrilles and romance and jazz -- oh, it's all irresistible stuff for a playwright in search of nonchalant glamour, drama, and literary flair. But irresistible material, alas, can still produce an utterly resistible play.

And that's the unfortunate result of the Williamstown Theatre Festival's first commission under artistic director Roger Rees , a project that raises our hopes with its alluring choice of subject and its attractive cast, then dashes them on the rocks of unbelievably stilted dialogue, pretension, labored vulgarity, awkward construction, and general muddleheadedness. It is painful to respond so negatively to a new work by a young playwright, but it would be dishonest to describe Crispin Whittell's "Villa America" in any other terms.

The play takes its name from the house in Antibes that Gerald and Sara Murphy, a wealthy young American couple, bought after visiting their friends Cole and Linda Porter and falling in love with the Riviera. Casually chic, hospitable, and devoted to modern art, the Murphys drew expatriate artists and writers into their circle, where they offered friendship, support, and inspiration. But their golden years came to a tragic end, with the global miseries of Depression and war compounded by the personal loss of their two young sons.

Theirs are fascinating lives, full of passion and joie de vivre, and with the kind of dramatic arc from great pleasure to great loss that is heartbreaking to live through and almost unbearably touching to observe. In fact, a concurrent exhibit at the Williams College Museum of Art tells this story with sensitivity, detail, and restraint, evoking both a hazy sense of the Murphys' sun-dappled milieu and a specific appreciation of the couple's talents and flaws.

If only Whittell, like the museum, had trusted the Murphys' story to reveal itself. Instead, he uses them as a crude peephole into the lives of their celebrity guests -- Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and Picasso, all captured at the point in their lives when youthful genius was deepening, and darkening, into something more complicated and, for the writers if not for the painter, ultimately more self-destructive.

So we get a scene of F. Scott (Nate Corddry), already drinking too much, asking his buddy Ernest (Matthew Bomer) to look at his penis and tell him if it's too small. "It's no great shake," Ernest later confides in Sara Murphy (Jennifer Mudge), in just one of many infelicitous attempts to replicate period slang. We get Ernest explaining the fine points of bullfighting, in a scene that has all the bloody minutiae and none of the thematic payoff of the blubber-rendering chapters in "Moby-Dick." We get Pablo (David Deblinger) flirting with Sara, and Scott flirting with Sara, and Ernest flirting with Sara, and Gerald (Karl Kenzler) glowering at all the flirting. Periodically, we get a world-weary French governess (Charlotte Booker) whose only apparent purpose is to remind us how American these Americans are.

Most of all, though, we get huge lumps of undigested research: exposition about each character's life and work so far, travelogue descriptions of St. Paul de Vence , and whole paragraphs of literary and artistic theory stuck in the mouth of whoever's handy at the time. Zelda Fitzgerald remains offstage, but that doesn't save us from hearing long narratives of her manic episodes -- along with long narratives of just about everything else.

A play based on people's lives needs to show us the playwright's vision of those people living those lives. This one, instead, puts some lovely and competent actors on a vaguely French beach, dresses them attractively, and then has them talk at each other about what has happened in their lives so far, what they wish had happened, and what they hope would happen next. It also tries to give all the storytelling a twist by moving backward in time, but that just removes any hope of an interesting surprise.

Perhaps if the theater had brought in a director, instead of having Whittell run it himself, an outside eye would have seen some of the problems in time to fix them. As it is, we're left only hoping that Whittell will take another look himself, then rework the germ of a promising idea into something that can actually come to life onstage.

Louise Kennedy can be reached at kennedy@globe.com.

'Related'

Villa America

Play by Crispin Whittell

Directed by: Whittell. Set, Mimi Lien. Costumes, Emily Pepper. Lights, Thom Weaver. Sound, Nick Borisjuk.

At: Williamstown Theatre Festival, Williamstown, through July 22. Tickets, $33-35. 413-597-3400, wtfestival.org

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