The minds of artists: A review of the Mark St. Germain play ‘Scott and Hem in the Garden if Allah’

The mind of an artist — be it a poet, painter, or musician — is by definition full. Full of itself and more of itself than average, and full of all the voices and sounds and images it has gathered along the way. Full to the point of needing to take one of two paths toward unraveling: a creative focus to serve as an outlet, or an escape, a numbing, through whatever means necessary. Both help quiet the chaos.

By no coincidence is the definition of madness strikingly similar to that of art. A dictionary defines neurotic as “abnormally sensitive,” neuroses as a mental or emotional condition “arising from no apparent organic lesion or change,” and imagination as “the act or power of forming a mental image of something not present to the senses or never before wholly perceived in reality.”

Enter F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway. It’s unknown whether they saw each other in Hollywood before Fitzgerald died in 1940. In the play “Scott and Hem in the Garden if Allah,” Mark St. Germain imagines that they did.

The audience is privy to their world — two brilliant minds together in the same room (the home of “Scott” in 1937 Hollywood) — and the result is a pulling and releasing, a coming together and pushing apart.

As a culture, we got a taste of imagining such historical conversations between these historical figures with Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris,” a delightful and insightful film but a story whose objective is altogether different from Germain’s.

Germain’s is a story of the creative mind, and its inner turmoil, and how inner turmoil creates outer turmoil, and the relationship between creative minds, which is often volatile but stimulating, friendly but competitive; like walking on broken glass — either intensely amazing or harmful.

Somewhere along the way, we learn that love and hate are strong words, to be used sparingly, only when deeply meant and felt, and yet how often do you hear, or utter yourself, the words “love/hate”: I have a love/hate relationship with my job, with my boss, with my living situation, with my car.

Imagine that statement to have the depth that it should entail and you begin to understand the relationship between Scott (played by Joey Collins) and Hem (Rod Brogan).

Because of the depths of the creative mind itself, the depths of the relationship between the two of them are perhaps greater than the average connection between minds (and hearts — you cannot leave out the passions).

“You know, Scott, nobody pisses me off like you do.”

This tension — this love and respect versus envy and competition — are seen throughout the play almost like a rubber band, stretching to its limit then snapping back together.

The conversation goes on for well over an hour, weaving in and out and maneuvering up and down through moments of shared happiness (remember when “Sun” and “Gatsby” were selling like mad one summer? They sit on a couch together, reminiscing, smiling wide.) and just as quickly, they are at each other’s throats, literally, in a fist fight.

Though both brilliant writers, Scott yearns for normalcy more than Hem. Scott loves his wife (“she’s the finest person I’ve ever known”), evidenced by his phone call to her while she’s in a mental hospital in Asheville, N.C., where he put her, “for her own good.” And, as Hem suggests, Scott is fascinated — too fascinated — by the wealthy class, which is only surface-deep to Hem.

Hem would rather ride the waves of madness and man up to the suffering; he thinks the best love affairs occur when there’s a mountain range between the two people involved; and, if given a choice, he would choose a good sentence over saving his wife from being hit by a car. He says all of this proudly, matter-of-factly.

And therein lies another tension.

Scott has “left the game,” as he put it, having made $13.13 in the past year on book sales. He’s allowing a woman from a film agency to re-write his script. He’s given up drinking.

What else, besides writing, is there to care about? Hem asks.

Happiness, Scott responds. “Any. Anywhere.”

This play was featured at the Contemporary American Theater Festival in Shepherdstown, W.Va.

Originally published July 11, 2013, in The Frederick News-Post. Photo by Carl van Vechten.

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