W.S. Jenks & Son

Remaining Performances (tickets available here):

Sunday, July 12 at 2:00 p.m. Wednesday, July 15 at 9:50 p.m. Tuesday, July 21 at 8:30 p.m. Sunday, July 26 at 1:20 p.m.

They say: A collection of one-act plays about Ernest Hemingway, James M. Cain, James Jones, Gore Vidal, Tennessee Williams, Norman Mailer… and their women. Relax, there’s no test or white whales, scarlet letters or leaves of grass.

John’s take: Playwright/director James F. Bruns has set a high bar for himself with American Lit. Bruns and his cast and crew seek to shed light on the private lives of writers with whom audience members will have varying levels of familiarity. The series of brief episodes focuses on writers’ relationships and not their famous output. That they largely fall short of achieving their goal is little surprise, considering the odds stacked against them.

Writing about writers is a notoriously difficult endeavor, and Bruns does himself no favors by assuming a fair amount of prior knowledge from his audience. (It might serve Bruns well to offer a little more background on each vignette in the program, or at least the full names of the authors to aid in any post-show Wikipedia searches.) I am at least moderately familiar with all of the writers depicted herein, but I still struggled to understand the why and wherefore of most of the play. Bruns winks at his audience fairly often: For example, James M. Cain, the subject of the second vignette, attempts to calm his wife down by noting that the postman who woke her up only rang twice. Those who don’t know the references will be left almost completely in the dark.

But even the most ardent bibliophiles are likely to find the play wanting. Bruns struggles to convey a sense of cohesiveness within the individual vignettes, let alone any thematic consistency across them. Moreover, their brevity (ten to fifteen minutes each) offers little time for Bruns to conjure any deep insights into what made these men (or “their women”) tick. While the vignettes each demonstrate Bruns’s ability to establish a strong sense of time and place, none manage to build to any sort of satisfying conclusion. It’s just hard to see what the target audience for the play is meant to be: novices won’t understand what’s going on, and experts won’t gain anything new.

The venue for American Lit is the cramped back room of the W.S. Jenks & Son hardware store. (I was terrified that the taller actors were going to hit their heads on the ceiling.) I’m happy to give the production team a pass for this challenge (and also to consider the possibility of opening-night jitters), but I can’t help but note that, with a few exceptions, the acting was flat and the staging stagnant. Indeed, until the final vignette (about the fiery Norman Mailer), the show suffered from a palpable lack of energy.

There’s a lot to admire about the reason why American Lit exists. Its subjects, after all, are some of the giants of literary history, men who have illuminated the essence of life in the 20th century for posterity. Bruns and his cast and crew aspire to tell us more about what these men were really like, and although the show itself will leave audiences frustrated, their efforts are likely to inspire further reading.

See it: Even the extra-credit assignments in your high school English class weren’t enough for you.

Skip it: You couldn’t make it through A Moveable Feast.