'Gatsby' Revisits a Stormy Life

EducationColleges and UniversitiesMyrna LoyQuinn SullivanBen DavisKate MulgrewF. Scott Fitzgerald

Considerable local interest may well greet "Gatsby in Hollywood," receiving its world premiere at the MET Theatre. Author Joshua Rebell traces the turbulent love affair of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Sheilah Graham against the studio politics and media influence surrounding them, deliberately drawing allusions to current-day industry practice.

In 1937, Fitzgerald (the admirable Jeff Benninghofen) met London-born gossip columnist Graham (A.K. Benninghofen, blending Myrna Loy and Kate Mulgrew) at one of the parties thrown by Robert Benchley (the fine Ben Davis) at his Garden of Allah bungalow.

Fitzgerald was a shadow of the golden boy who rocketed to fame with "This Side of Paradise" in 1920. Near-destitute from the combined weight of wife Zelda's institutionalization, the Vassar education of daughter Scottie (the effective Beth Kirkpatrick) and clinical alcoholism, Fitzgerald--along with Benchley and fellow transplanted Algonquin Round Table habitués--had become an indentured servant to the studios. .

Graham had her own demons, an orphaned ex-chorine hiding her casting-couch rise beneath a veneer of soignée acerbity. Her determination provided Fitzgerald with what stability his decline possessed, even as his erudition spurred her higher education, a "college of one" as she put it.

Movie audiences may recall this pair from Gregory Peck and Deborah Kerr's portrayals in "Beloved Infidel," the 1959 film adaptation of Graham's heavily laundered memoirs. The actual dynamic, as Graham's son Robert Westbrook recounted in his 1995 book "Intimate Lies," was far more complex, and "Gatsby in Hollywood" ambitiously attempts to do it justice.

Dave P. Moore's direction is aptly cinematic, using the realistic pieces that dot his and co-designer Gillian Morris' stylized Art Deco canvas to near-seamless effect. Robert Hensley's period attire, Brenda Vargas' sound and Brian Fletcher's lighting are all assets.

So is the proficient ensemble, with Kara Keeley, Silas Weir Mitchell and Deena Rubinson standouts in multiple roles. Davis suggests George Brent more than Benchley, but he displays great flair, as do Shirley Anderson's Dorothy Parker, Richard Gustafson's Eddie Mayer, Andrew Friedman's Ogden Nash, Quinn Sullivan's Anita Loos, and so on.

The Benninghofens are married in real life, having met in this show's workshop, and their affinity is evident. This is fortunate, as his alcoholic desiccation relies more on technique than essential quality, nor does her innate classiness quite convince of the lowbrow concealed therein.

This is scarcely their fault. Rebell has perhaps overdone the research, overloading the narrative with expository dialogue more detailed than any "Biography" episode. The excess dilutes the nuances of the relationship's development in attempting to cover all bases, creating a tonal imbalance, not to mention over-length.

For example, while Graham's radio sequences with Ann Adams (Linda Eve Miller) are giddily entertaining, they seem stylistically detached from Fitzgerald's Odets-like Act 1 curtain rampage, or the surreal tableau of the finale. This doesn't prevent "Gatsby" from sustaining interest, but a reevaluation of priorities seems advisable.

"Gatsby in Hollywood," MET Theatre, 1089 N. Oxford Ave., Hollywood. Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 7 p.m. Ends Aug. 31. $20. (323) 957-1152. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes.

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