It’s a winter night in Paris in 1926. F. Scott Fitzgerald, one year removed from the publication of his breakout hit “The Great Gatsby,” is churning out short stories for publication to make ends meet while he struggles to complete a draft of a book as solid as its predecessor. His bored wife Zelda, fearing that new motherhood has made her undesirable to her distracted husband, lurks and drinks.
…crisply written…Randolph and his team at Transformation Theatre take great steps toward generating an important new work of drama.
Fitzgerald is also working through the pages of a draft by his friend Ernest Hemingway, a successful short story writer who is making his own first effort at a novel, a tale about British ex-pats in Paris who travel to Spain to experience the running of the bulls. Fitzgerald thinks “Hem,” as he calls him, takes too long to get to the plot. Hem is about to stop by for Scott’s notes and Zelda is not looking forward to the visit.
That is the premise of “Tender,” a crisply written new play by David John Preece making its stage debut at Capital Fringe. The evening encounter, which may or may not have actually happened, is believable and dramatic. Preece understands these three romantic figures of the 20th century literary scene quite intimately.
Preece’s original script ran two hours in two acts. He, director Carl Randolph, and dramaturg Ethan Joshua trimmed it down to a lean 75 minutes to meet Fringe standards. I do not know what they excised, but I advise Preece to take the advice his Scott gives Hem and kill his darlings. This short version works well and keeps the rising tension fresh, and the one-act structure evokes the feeling of being in one room that grows increasingly claustrophobic.
The subtext (and, later on, text) of “Tender” deals with the rumored affair between Fitzgerald and Hemingway which Preece casts as fact. His Zelda is well aware of it and berates Scott—at this point in time the more successful writer—for taking a subordinate role to his boorish protégé. Hem, in turn, is aware of his power over Scott and sees Zelda as a too-insightful impediment.
If the story is not enough to get you to buy your ticket, Brenna Horner is. Her portrayal of Zelda is captivating and close to perfect. She embodies Zelda with every part of herself from lights up. Be sure to watch her silent reactions from her sofa while the menfolk argue across the room. Horner is among the best actors I have ever seen in more than a decade as a Fringe attendee and critic.
Adian Chapman is generally good as Hemingway, but while he shines in his quiet moments with Scott, his outbursts in the confrontations near the end of “Tender” are not quite believable. Chad Tyler’s Fitzgerald comes off as nebbishy. He stumbled with a number of of Scott’s lines on opening night and delivered many of them in a rushed and nervous tone.
Randolph’s direction is smooth and assured. Linda Swann’s costumes are period-perfect. A slight sour note to the staging was the occasional projection of a time and place to denote a flashback. This is intended to inform but proves disruptive. It might have worked better to use lighting shifts to show a change in time, though the technical limitations of Fringe possibly precluded this.
Fringe serves many purposes and one of them is as a laboratory for workshopping new works. With this debut of Preece’s play, Randolph and his team at Transformation Theatre take great steps toward generating an important new work of drama.
Running time: One hour and 15 minutes with no intermission.
Advisory: Recommended for ages 13 and up.
“Tender” runs through July 22, 2023 at Capital Fringe Sour – Second Floor, 1050 Thomas Jefferson Street NW, Washington 20007. For tickets and information, click here. For more information and tickets for the festival which runs through July 23, 2023, go to the Capital Fringe website.