Entertainment :: Theatre

Zelda at the Oasis

by Ellen Wernecke
Contributor
Thursday Dec 6, 2012
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Director Andy Sandberg
Director Andy Sandberg  

Zelda at the Oasis, a new play featuring Zelda Fitzgerald unburdening herself to a bartender at an anonymous watering hole feasts on its energetic performances but ultimately sheds little light on the woman herself.

Zelda (Gardner Reed) stumbles into the Oasis right before closing time, presenting herself as an obstacle keeping the bartender (Edwin Cahill) from getting to his after-hours appointment with a woman who may be interested in his songs. The frustrations of the creative life are nothing new to Zelda, and between intervals of drunken flailing she reaches the heart of her suffering: With F. Scott (also played by Cahill) off working and a series of voluntary commitments to asylums under her belt, Zelda feels the pangs of a creative stifling in her heart and means to turn over a new leaf - any leaf - as soon as the bartender, who has naturally never heard of her, is given access to the full secrets of her life.

Reed and Cahill exhaust themselves skillfully putting these two potentially kindred spirits through their paces. New York newcomer Reed displays great range in showing Zeldas young, old and occasionally incoherent. Besides F. Scott, Cahill plays several other characters in Zelda’s life by ducking backstage and emerging with a new persona, from a young reporter pestering Zelda for details about her husband’s working style to her Parisian dance teacher. The sum of their efforts, however, calls into question the thesis of P.H. Lin’s play: Are these two barflies (one personal, one professional) really creatively united, or just delusional? The appointment with fame the bartender claims to be keeping could just as easily be a smokescreen to hoist the last dwindling customer out of his saloon, and his expert piano work shows no clear aptitude for composition. Similarly, Zelda impresses her husband with her drawings but not her words, and her dance training has been buried by decades of indolence - if it was ever going to amount to more than the comforting reassurance of her instructor.

This question eats away at "Zelda at the Oasis" until the answer given by the play’s conclusion isn’t satisfying. Director Andy Sandberg clearly leans toward one side of the equation, but ought to have opened his talented cast toward more nuance. Guiding them toward a more in-depth portrayal than one that doesn’t question Zelda’s need to drink and flirt with the bartender in the first place - when, supposedly, fame can get her anything she wants - would add shading to this late era of her life. A few tantalizing hints are flung here and there, such as Zelda’s contention that her husband used her life in his work and left her nothing, and a Daisy Buchananesque vignette about her pregnancy suggests a model for how he did. But this potential thesis is buried under a lot of idle talk.

Zelda’s identity, and the internal workings of her marriage, are secrets literary scholars are still trying to crack - not things that can be answered in one act.

Zelda at the Oasis runs at St. Luke’s Theatre, 308 W. 46th Street. For tickets and more information visit zeldaoasis.com.

Ellen Wernecke’s work has appeared in Publishers Weekly and The Onion A.V. Club, and she comments on books regularly for WEBR’s "Talk of the Town with Parker Sunshine." A Wisconsin native, she now lives in New York City.

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