TEA WITH EDIE & FITZ Is Intellectually Intricate
Thu. May 2, 2013 12:00 AM
by Michael J. Roberts
Be forewarned that prior to viewing playwright Adam Pasen's intellectually intricate new work Tea with Edie & Fitz, it will behoove you to do some basic research on the characters involved. Told in a non-linear timeline, Mr. Pasen delves full force into the lives of some of most prolific literary and artisans ever to ever set pen to paper. Edith Wharton, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Henry James, Ernest Hemmingway, Zelda Fitzgerald, and Charles Scribner all are part of this tale, which in many ways is about the establishment passing the torch to a younger generation.
In Tea with Edie and Fitz (which began life as Pasen's PhD thesis) Edith Wharton, famed author of "The Age of Innocence", is being overshadowed and challenged by a new breed of writer, including the popular F. Scott Fitzgerald whom she views as "shallow and degenerate". After reading his newest work "The Great Gatsby" , Wharton requests his company for tea with the inevitable result being a clash of egos derived from the jealousy (and respect) each has for the others' talent.
Conceived and directed by Jim Schneider for Dead Writers' Theatre Collective, the story moves along at varying degrees of cohesiveness. We are first introduced to the boozy Fitzgerald (Madison Niederhauser) and his mentally ill wife, Zelda (Nora Lise Ulrey) who are clearly on the brink of emotional collapse. As their story moves backwards in time, we see how the invitation to tea with Ms. Wharton (Patti Roeder) came to be. The story then shifts to a forward moving timeline with Ms. Wharton receiving a copy of Gatsby and her reaction to the new style of writing that has overtaken the literary world; one where subtlety is held for naught. Ms. Wharton is joined by her long suffering maid Grossie (Christina Irwin) and the ghost of her dead first husband, Henry James (Michael D. Graham).
What is so brilliant about Mr. Pasen's story is his insight on why these great talents wrote in the sprit that they so did. Each of the characters is faced with issues of conflicted sexual identity, infidelity and more importantly; mental illness. Mr. Pasen juxtaposes these matters with great skill. Wharton's current husband is locked away in a mental institution while Mr. Fitzgerald's wife is decidedly on her way into one. The dichotomy of the two characters dealing with the same issue although viewed through different social prisms is quite telling. The same is true with how Fitzgerald and Henry James dealt with life on the "down low" where ferries have a decidedly different meaning depending on the generation.
As Mr. Pasen's material is quite challenging (from every standpoint) the actors are asked to take a leap of faith with the creative team. Most of the time, they succeed in splendid fashion. This is mainly to do the trust director Schneider (one of Chicago's finest) has in the playwright and his actors. No more so then Ms. Roeder who steals the show as the stalwart Edith Wharton. Roeder commands each scene she is in and has a perfect balance of pathos and comedy. Mr. Niederhauser's F. Scott Fitzgerald has some great moments as well, especially when it comes to the comic jabs, but there are times he seems to be over compensating during the more dramatic moments.
The biggest surprise of this production is the adept performance of Ms. Ulrey has the complicated Zelda, who more than comes into her own in the second (and better act). Probably the most difficult role in the show, Ms. Ulrey's young and feisty Zelda is troublesome to accept at first, but as the story unfolds and as she weaves her way in and out of sanity, you cannot help but appreciate the quality of her stunning performance.
The rest of the cast is fantastic. As Wharton's "soul mate" Henry James, Michael D. Graham has great onstage chemistry with Ms. Roeder and their relationship rings very real. Christine Irwin's maid Grossie is a hilarious counterpoint to the stayed Wharton (their relationship is akin to Karen and Rosario on Will & Grace); Peter Esposito shows great humanity in his craziness as Teddy Wharton; Nelson Rodriquez' Teddy Chandler is perfectly quirky, especially at the final tea segment; Bill Chamberlain's Charles Scribner reminds us of how the heads of the institutions had to cope with the superego of their paid talent; as does Megan DeLay as the Secretary at Scribner's who sees Wharton as a groundbreaking icon.
As one as come to expect from Dead Writers' Theatre Collective, the production values are stunning, with precise detail found in every nook and cranny of the set (Edward Matthew Walter), costumes (Elizabeth Wislar) and soft hued lighting (Linda Bugielski). There are also some great projections (who isn't using projections nowadays) by Mark Madolski.
There is still some editing to be done on this new work. There are several points where the non-linear (or reverse-linear) manner of storytelling can get confusing at the sacrifice of character connection while other scenes, especially in the first act could use a trim. Other than that, this is a solid, thought provoking new work that will surely benefit from the opening of the long awaiting film remake of The Great Gatsby this month.
On a side note, it should be said that as a company, Dead Writers' Theatre Collective is a true beacon for other theatre companies to follow. It is with respect that they approach their productions (just look at last year's hit The Vortex) with every minute detail being given attention. That is a rarity in today's theatre world and one that deserves respect.
Adam Pasen's Tea with Edie and Fitz runs through June 9, 2013 at the Greenhouse Theater Complex, 2257 North Lincoln Ave. For more information visit deadwriters.net, greenhousetheater.org or 773.404.7336. For calendar information visit theatreinchicago.com.