Brooding drama from Tennessee Williams; Clothes for a Summer Hotel

"Ghost play" by Tennessee Williams. Directed by Jose Quintero. Starring Geraldine Page, Kenneth Haigh. Even a lesser play by a major playwright is an important theatrical event. Such a play, judged by first encounter, is "Clothes for a Summer Hotel." The event is the Broadway premiere of Tennessee Williams's "ghost play" at the Cort Theater. In a program note, Mr. Williams writes: "Our reason for taking extraordinary licence with time and place is that in an asylum and on its grounds, liberties of this kind are quite prevalent; and also these liberties allow us to explore in more depth what we believe is the truth of character."

The central subjects of this darmatic exploration are the now legendary couple Zelda and her husband, writer Scott Fitzgerald, fragments of whose fractured lives and relationships have been assembled in a kaleidoscopic montage. The troubled probing occurs at Highland Hospital, a mental institution in Asheville, N.C., where Zelda was a patient and where she perished when fire struck the building in March of 1948.

For the melancholy retrospection, Oliver Smith has designed a gothically brooding set -- a broken-walled building front with a huge iron gate surmounted by a skyscape of ominous clouds. Incidental scenes for the flashbacks relieve the starkness.

As the play opens, ghosts of the past emerge in a swirl of mist and disappear as the action centers on a sobered Scott Fitzgerald (Kenneth Haigh), come to visit his mentally disturbed wife. With the belated arrival of Zelda (Geraldine Page), the once golden couple of the '20s resumes what clearly has been an ongoing battle of recrimination and acrimony. It is a histrionic tour de force -- particularly on Miss Page's Part -- but it grows wearisome before Mr. Williams introduces the series of flashbacks which probe the sources of the tragedy to come.

Like "The Glass Menageries," his first success among 30 full-length works, "Clothes for a Summer Hotel" is a play of memory as well as of ghosts. The specters come vividly, at times touchingly, to state life as the action recalls earlier, if not happier, days. Frustrated in her writing ambition (for which she blames Scott), Zelda determines to become a ballet dancer, a totally unrealistic hope. Her love affair with a French aviator (David Canary) is likewise doomed.

The dance at which their breakup occurs also serves the playwright for a confrontation between Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway (Robert black) and a comic appearance by Mrs. Patrick Campbell (Josephine Nichols). Other real-life characters who populate the rueful reminiscence include Gerald and Sara Murphy (Michael Connolly and Marilyn Rockafellow), Madame Egorova (Audree Rae), Zelda's ballet teacher, and Hadley Hemingway (Tanny McDonald).

Not surprisingly, the dialogue abounds in tapestried eloquence, flights of lyricism, and a humor that can be delicate or ironically biting. Miss Page spres nothing in her portrait of a frazzled, addled creature who can, by contrast, recall the rapture of younger days. Mr. Haigh's task is more difficult in coming to terms with the almost entirely unsympathetic figure of the tortured writer and erstwhile alcoholic. It is a performance of substance and stature.

Director Jose Quintero has achieved the fluidity of movement requisite for a drama that alternates between the asylum and the remembrances of things past. One of the more striking visual effects is Theoni v. Aldredge's design for the habits worn by the nursing nuns.

The conspicuously lacking element in "Clothes for a Summer Hotel" is any real suggestion of the glamorous people the Fitzgeralds had once been -- with what Nancy Milford, in "Zelda," called their "youthful handsomeness . . . their incandescent vitality. . . ."

The title, incidentally, refers to the unsuitable summer jacket and slacks Scott wears when he visits the windswept, hilltop asylum on a chill September day. For all its images of fire, "Clothes for a Summer Hotel" is a bleak play, a play of defeat and dejection. Once cannot help wondering whether this plunge into a ghostly purgatory was worth all the trouble it has taken.

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