Sometimes a good novel is just that: a good novel. Its tone, plot and characters remain stubbornly resistant to transmutation into a theatrical form. When it comes to F. Scott Fitzgerald novels, this seems particularly true, as evidenced by Hollywood's pathetic string of "Great Gatsbys."
None of these past failures intimidated playwright Simon Levy. He bravely adapted Fitzgerald's "Tender Is the Night" for the inaugural production of the American Literature Theatre Lab at the Fountain Theatre.
There's a noble experiment going on in this literature laboratory. In this instance, it produces a volatile compound that fizzes prettily but ultimately fails.
In Fitzgerald's story, handsome psychiatrist Dick Diver marries beautiful schizoid Nicole, a former mental patient whose great wealth affords them a life of indolence and ease on the French Riviera. Their all-consuming relationship ultimately reduces Dick to a wreck of his former self while Nicole emerges as the stronger party.
When first published in 1934, "Tender Is the Night" flopped, accelerating Fitzgerald's own famous "crack-up." The novel also defied theatrical dramatization (two filmed versions and a 1938 stage adaptation was never produced)--for obvious reasons.
Levy has tried to streamline Fitzgerald's scrambled chronology through the use of unfortunately unwieldy flashbacks. On one level, Levy's work is watchable--in the sense that a Danielle Steel miniseries is watchable. However, stripped of the subtler gradations of Fitzgerald's prose, the characters degenerate into artifice.
In the extraordinarily difficult role of Nicole, Tracy Middendorf is both beautiful and intense. Yet as the years wend forward (and backward and sideways), Nicole's relentless eccentricity begins to seem annoyingly repetitive. As Dick Diver, Lawrence Poindexter has a nicely natural quality but lacks the role's essential bred-in-the-bone urbanity and confidence.
Lisa Robin Kelly, who plays the nubile starlet with whom Dick has an affair, seems more stereotypically dizzy than seductive. Philip Abrams is both humorous and affecting as Dick's longtime friend Abe North, a talented songwriter swamped in booze and despair.
From a purely physical standpoint, this is a handsome show. Robert W. Zentis' lighting and sets are protean. Jeanne Reith's period costumes are as lavish as they are lovely. Director Heidi Helen Davis may miss some beats in the various character developments of her large cast, but her staging, with its frequent scene changes, is remarkably smooth and uncluttered.
If only the same could be said of the play. As brave and ambitious as is this attempt, "Tender Is the Night" remains "just" a good novel.
* "Tender Is the Night," Fountain Theatre, 5060 Fountain Avenue, Hollywood. Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 7 p.m. Ends April 8. $15-$18. (213) 663-1525. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes.