The legend of Zelda has formed the basis for numerous Jazz Age sojourns. Some dabble in shopworn tales of Mr. and Mrs. F. Scott Fitzgerald's drunken wild-child antics, as Woody Allen did in "Midnight in Paris," while feminist literary critics have usually taken a more nuanced view of Scott's Southern-belle wife and muse. With Baz Luhrmann's "The Great Gatsby" set to land in multiplexes, it's a safe bet that Zelda will be back in the spotlight, 65 years after she burned to death in a mental asylum in North Carolina.
Playwright Adam Pasen gets out of the gate ahead of Luhrmann with "Tea With Edie and Fitz," now in a world premiere with Dead Writers Theatre Collective under Jim Schneider's direction. Pasen's conceit (and this play is overstuffed with them) is to juxtapose the youthful Fitzgeralds with the seemingly more staid Gilded Age represented by Edith Wharton, who chronicled New York society in novels such as "The Age of Innocence."
Like the Fitzgeralds, Wharton became an expatriate in Paris. Like Scott, Edith also had a spouse, Teddy Wharton, who struggled with lifelong emotional difficulties. And Edie and Fitz did indeed meet once for tea in summer 1925. That event provides Pasen with an excuse to serve up a groaning board of literary references and biographical details, up to and including the ghost of Edith's fellow Gilded Age expat writer Henry James (a delightfully choleric Michael D. Graham). Too many characters, including Peter Esposito's bedraggled Teddy, pop up for one scene in order to make a drawn-out expositional point or parallel between the Fitzgeralds and Wharton, rather than feeling necessary to the narrative.
What Pasen has created here feels too often like a bibliography rather than fully fleshed-out portraits of the artists as a young man and an old woman. Toss in an unnecessarily complex structure — the scenes with the Fitzgeralds in their hotel room move backward in chronology, while Wharton's scenes move forward — and the enterprise bogs down. In short, this thing needs an editor like the legendary Max Perkins (who also shows up briefly) to give it a sharper edge. Losing some of the staging devices, including a pointless silent-movie interlude, would also help us see deeper dimensions.
Yet when Pasen steps out of smarty-pants mode and just allows the characters to breathe a bit, there are moments to admire. Though Nora Lise Ulrey's Zelda starts off in the red zone of neurosis, her portrayal takes on increasingly sympathetic shades as we see how Madison Niederhauser's Scott (in a too-studied portrayal) plunders her journals for his own writing.
Best of all, in Patti Roeder's Edith, we get to see a woman who was far more modern and forward-thinking than her tightly corseted characters suggest. Though she may dismiss Virginia Woolf's "Mrs. Dalloway" as "a 200-page excuse for not washing one's hair," like Woolf's heroine, Edie triumphs as a clear-eyed survivor in an age of upheaval.
When: Through June 9
Where: Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln Ave.
Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes
Tickets: $30 at 773-404-7336 or deadwriters.net