As the Goodman Theatre opens Pamplona, a one-man show starring Stacy Keach as an aging, rambling Ernest Hemingway, the production’s primary claim to fame may be its rough road to this five-week run: initially slated for last year’s season, the show played 11 previews before being abruptly stopped mid-performance on opening night. Keach, it was reported, suffered a mild heart attack on stage and, as the show depends entirely on his performance, the run was cancelled so Keach could rest and recuperate.
Written by Jim McGrath and directed by Goodman artistic director Robert Falls, Pamplona returns now as an achievement of endurance, Keach carrying the entire 90-minute internal dialogue on his 77-year-old shoulders. Set entirely in a Spanish hotel room in October 1959, Hemingway is five years past winning the Nobel Prize and fairly certain his best writing is behind him. He’d spent the summer following Spain’s bullfighters around the circuit and across the country, and now he owes Time magazine a feature piece on the experience, an article he’s having trouble putting together.
Pamplona is a play steeped in history. Though I’m no Hemingway scholar (we were both born and raised in Oak Park—does that count for anything?), the play is clearly anchored in well-documented facts and anecdotes from the author’s life. Keach’s Hemingway reminisces about coming up in the Lost Generation with F. Scott Fitzgerald (simply Scott) and Gertrude Stein (Gertie); he recounts his four wives and affairs in between (and sometimes during); we’re transported to bullfights and battlefields as our trip down memory lane winds this way and that.
Supporting each story is an array of projections on the hotel room walls, actual archival photos of Hemingway’s family and friends plus a few scene-setting images of Parisian streets and crashing waves and the like. Cued perfectly to lines of dialogue, they’re a clever way to add dimension to an otherwise one-note narrative that feels more like listening to your grandfather drone on about his glory days rather than a captivating fireside chat with one of history’s most charismatic literary icons. Whatever poignant moments exist within the monologue are muted by choppy, amateurish segues and filler that Keach seems to barrel through just to get on to the next story.
Several transitions are prompted by a phone call from an unseen desk clerk, Juanito, and the side of dialogue we’re privy to is so stilted and silly, it’s embarrassing. “What’s that you say? It’s about money? Oh, ok, put him through,” Keach exclaims, by way of getting him on the line with his accountant. Ultimately, the pertinent information McGrath wants us to glean from the conversation is that Hemingway is in dire financial straits, so much so that he requests an advance from Time for the article he still hasn’t written. It’s not the device of the phone call I object to in order to parlay this information; it’s the fumbled set-up that costs the rest of the moment its desired impact.
Time and again, and despite Keach’s restored health and complete commitment to the role, the creative team seems to miss opportunities to infuse Hemingway’s stories with the visceral energy one associates with this larger-than-life legend. Instead, it’s a defeated old man wandering from this desk chair to that armchair to this corner of the room to that small balcony upstage, talking about what a bitch Zelda Fitzgerald was and how his every struggle in life is his mother’s fault. In between, we get chronologically spoon-fed the simplified backstories of some of his best-known work, including The Sun Also Rises, A Farewell to Arms, The Old Man and the Sea and For Whom the Bell Tolls.
It’s wonderful that Keach has recovered enough to bring Pamplona back to the Chicago stage; he remains a force as ever, and as the tension rises ever so much towards the end of our time together, his performance is both fierce and vulnerable. Though it’s difficult to ever really engage with the stories he’s sharing (does the “Show, don’t tell” adage not apply on stage?), taken as a whole, Pamplona is an enjoyable enough night at the theater. At the very least, you’ll head home and pick up whatever Hemingway you have tucked away on a shelf, hungry for vibrant, compelling stories directly from the man himself.
Pamplona runs through August 19 at the Goodman Theatre; tickets are $25-$90 and available here.
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