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A CurtainUp Review
It Just Catches by Elyse Sommer

You're called Sliding Billy. That's because you can slide. I'm called just Billy. That's because I never could slide at all. I can't slide, Billy, I can't slide. It just catches. Every time I try it, it catches. . . It's awful when you can't slide
--- William Campbell, a bicycle rider in "A Pursuit Race" -- a term for the contests in which racers ride very fast for short distances and those who, like Campbell, are caught and passed, are out of the race.
Ann Crumb and David Ackroyd
Ann Crumb and David Ackroyd
(Photo: Carol Rosegg )
The "it just catches" comment above provides both title and a thematic umbrella for this ambitious collage play Carol Hemingway has wrought from a novel and five short stories by her famous father-in-law, Ernest Hemingway. The unerasable memory or event that "just catches" runs through the life fragments of the characters cut and pasted into the play-adaptation.

Ernest Hemingway's distinctively economical style seems particularly well suited to the stage -- even though a heavy polemical agenda sunk his single venture into playwriting (The Fifth Column, 1939). Guided by what he called the "iceberg principle", he became famous for telling his stories through dialogue and detail but without the usual authorial commentary, leaving it to the reader to find meaning below the surface. But theater goers will have a tough time sliding through the Hemingway fiction as conceived by Ms. Hemingway. Her concept sounds catchy, but ends up being caught in the traps of so many page to stage translations of stories meant to be read.

Ms Hemingway attempts to pay homage to the style and substance of her father-in-law's large and diversified body of work with a minute but revelatory sampling. Unlike Karin Coonrod's staging of some of Flannery O'Connor's stories several seasons ago (Everything That Rises Must Converge), Ms. Hemingway has not relied on the best-known and most highly regarded stories such as "The Snows of Kilimanjaro", "The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber" and "The Killers." That's catch number one.

The inclusion of the one novel, To Have and To Have Not, may explain the playwright-adapter's rationale. While considered Hemingway's least successful novel, it was also recognized as his most inventive and experimental. The same may be said for It Just Catches. While the pieces of the collage have been quite artfully assembled to introduce and connect characters and autobiographical elements, the impressionistic structure is likely to leave anyone not reasonably well acquainted with Hemingway's work and life unmoved and confused..

The most free-standing are the short opening piece and the longer concluding one. "A Cat in the Rain" takes place in a Parisian hotel room, where a man and woman are physically together but emotionally apart. Her yearning for more of a relationship is expressed by her yearning to rescue and love a cat she sees out on the rainy street. "A Three Day Blow." features Hemingway's frequently used Nick Adams character as one of two friends waiting out a storm in a Michigan hunting lodge, with flashbacks to a broken relationship.

The use of songs by Hemingway friend Cole Porter is a nice touch and the choice of songs like "What Is This Thing Called Love", "Ev'ry Time We Say Goodbye", and "Let's Do It, Let's Fall In Love" underscore the melancholy relationships between the various women (Ann Crumb and Jessica D. Turner playing, amongst other parts, several who strongly suggest Hemingway's various wives), and the Hemingway-like narrator (David Ackroyd, whose additional roles include Richard Gordon from To Have and Have Not). Crumb and Turner sing gamely if not particularly well, as does pianist Marsh Hanson. In fitting a small Grand onto the Cherry Lane's miniscule stage, Riccardo Hernandez proves himself Hemingway's design counterpart in conciseness.

It Just Catches is an intriguing effort, but ultimately it reinforces my preference for adaptations that don't try to reconfigure the source material too drastically. Ms. Conrood's Flannery O'Connor project was complicated by restrictions imposed by that writers' trustees; restrictions she handled intelligently but not entirely successfully. Dennis Krausnick of Shakespeare & Company, in Lenox, Massachussetts, who's adapted many of Edith Wharton's stories and novels for the stage, has probably most often succeeded in remaining true to the writer's voice without requiring the audience to have read and loved the source material. (Some examples: The Wharton One-Acts: The Other Two and Roman Fever and Summer).

Finally, while Hemingway had many friends who were writers, he never collaborated with anyone. I'm not sure he'd be happy to be excavated from his grave to be party to his daughter-in-law's championing his reputation -- a case of borrowing from Ernest to create a play by Carol.

A play by Carol Hemingway based on Ernest Hemingway's "Cat in the Rain," "A Pursuit Race," "The Three Day Blow," "The End of Something" and "To Have and Have Not."
Directed by Edward Hastings
Cast: David Ackroyd, Ann Crumb, Marsh Hanson (pianist), Ryan Shively, Daniel Freedom Stewart, and Jessica D. Turner
Set Design: Riccardo Hernandez
Costume Design: David C. Woolard
Lighting Design: Duane Schuler
Sound Design: Sten Steverson
Music of Cole Porter
Running time: 2 hours and ten minutes, includes one intermission
Cherry Lane Theatre, 38 Commerce St. 212/239-6200
. 1/29/0-3/23/03; opening 2/09/03.
Mon, Wed - Fri @8PM, Sat @5PM & 9PM, Sun @3PM-- $55.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on February 6 press performance

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