Papa | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

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Royal-George Theatre

I'm not the kind of guy you'd call Hemingwayesque. I don't box, fish, or follow the bullfights. I've never been on safari or gone to war, and I don't feel any buddy-buddy kinship with those who have. Castration's never been a major issue--or the major issue, anyway--with me. Neither has woman-hating. I don't drink much, I don't hate priests, I tend to avoid competitive situations, and I have yet to betray my first wife. Like I say, I'm not the kind of guy you'd call Hemingwayesque.

Maybe that's why I found act one of John de Groot's Papa so hard to take. Act one gives us Hemingway indulging his Hemingwayesqueness with a vengeance, all but lifting his shirt--and dropping his shorts--to show his battle scars.

Playing the writer/adventurer in decline--a 58-year-old Nobel laureate just three years away from suicide--George Peppard ticks off the obsessions one after another: women, emasculation, women and emasculation, Mom, Mom and emasculation, alcohol, blasphemy, machismo (and emasculation), pain, and death. He starts out with a Bloody Mary and an anecdote about how one of his wives "cut the balls off" the family tomcats, then--tomato juice getting paler, and paler as he lays on the vodka--goes on to describe his mother's only slightly more subtle techniques for abusing his father.

He tells how his first love betrayed him; how his second wife seduced him; how his third wife caught him, covered in red mud, cavorting with a couple of girls he bought off an African tribesman. He lies about his conquests, claims Jesus cured his impotence, and charges Zelda Fitzgerald with turning poor F. Scott to mush. Women, for this Hemingway, are a menace and a challenge. A dark prize, to be reviled and possessed. A great chasm, so to speak, dividing men from their manhood. He invariably refers to death as an "old whore."

Macho/misogynist outbursts dovetail nicely with odes to liquor and tales from the front to create a portrait of the artist as Freudian case study. Pegged by de Groot as a repressed homosexual with heavy oedipal conflicts thanks to Mom's lethal mind games, Hemingway is portrayed as having fabricated a he-man mystique in self-defense--a mystique that ultimately swamped him, taking over his entire being and transforming him from a deft, passionate novelist and reporter into a well-known blowhard. Turning him, in short, Hemingwayesque.

And that's how we find him in act one: comfortably ensconced in his legend, narrating his life with vast bluster and no self-knowledge at all.

Or rather, that's how de Groot sets him up. This blowhard Hemingway of his is as much a theatrical as a psychological construct, the idea being to pump poor Papa as full of hot air and pretense as possible early on, then prick him (so to speak), and spend act two listening to the interesting noises he makes as he slowly deflates.

The prick of choice is vodka, which Hemingway ends up chugging straight from the bottle, getting sloppier and sloppier by the gulp, Before long he's throwing mean tantrums, confessing to ugly little acts of private cowardice, and exposing the hurt child inside.

The whole thing's much too pat, both theatrically and psychologically. Theatrically, because it's just so obvious--you can see the gimmick coming in the opening moments of act one, when de Groot has Hemingway run down the list of his neurotic preoccupations as if they were so many stops on a Gray Line tour. Psychologically, because it's so reductive. Here's an important 20th-century writer--a major interpreter of his times and ours, an imposing cultural presence--whose genius and complexity and tragedy, de Groot avers, boil down to nothing more than a few reflexive behaviors and a bad case of the moms. World wars one and two, the Spanish Civil War, several marriages, and a distinguished oevre count for nothing except as recapitulations of Hemingway's personal primal scene.

Now I know it's possible, perhaps inevitable, for even great artists to subside after a while into caricature. I happened to interview Tennessee Williams not long before his death, and he came across as a fairly miserable parody of himself--launching into grand (and repetitive) tirades against perceived enemies, refusing to answer the questions put to him, drinking more than he should, and finally walking very ostentatiously out on me. But even Williams's display deserves to be understood in terms of something larger and more subtle than tabloid psychoanalysis. The author of A Streetcar Named Desire wasn't simple.

And neither was the author of The Sun Also Rises. At one point in Papa, Hemingway recalls Gertrude Stein on her deathbed, asking Alice B. Toklas, "What is the answer?"' When Toklas said she didn't know, Stein asked, "Well, then, what is the question?" The trouble with Papa is that de Groot thinks he knows the answer to Ernest Hemingway. But in fact he hasn't any real grasp of the question. He supposes that a pattern of compulsion amounts to the same thing as a view of the soul. He hasn't even scratched the surface.

Complete intellectual failure aside, Papa's pretty entertaining. George Peppard makes it so. I'll tell you, I had very little respect for Mr. P going into this show. I thought of him as a former actor from an adventure series. But he knows where to put the laughs and the hurt, and before he's done he's built an empathic, satisfying, thoroughly professional performance--even when lighting designer Thomas R. Skelton's subverting him with a silly "storm" that looks like something out of a disco version of King Lear. If anybody's got hold of Hemingway here, it's Peppard.

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