Ann Crumb and David Ackroydin It Just Catches 
(Photo: Carol Rosegg)
Ann Crumb and David Ackroyd
in It Just Catches
(Photo: Carol Rosegg)
It Just Catches, Carol Hemingway's adaptation of Ernest Hemingway short stories novel extracts, may very well send audiences back to the original works. That's always a desirable effect, although with this production the re-reading may be prompted for the wrong reasons. Inquiring minds will want to know: Can the Nobel laureate have been this shallow?

At the start of this short, two-act piece, a bearded Hemingway stand-in (David Ackroyd, who could easily win Key West's annual Hemingway lookalike contest) sidles up to the baby grand that Riccardo Hernandez has placed on his economical set. The actor pecks the opening melodic line to Cole Porter's "What is This Thing Called Love?" When he gets to the note for the word "love," he hits the wrong one. Uh-oh. What's about to unfold, it's clear, are a series of vignettes about love's sour notes. What becomes clear only minutes later is that each of the sections will be divided by another Porter love (or lovelorn) song intended to comment on what Hemingway has just observed, as well as to cover costume changes.

The impression of boxing fan Hemingway as a lightweight sets in with the first hunk of material drawn from his only play, The Fifth Column, in which a Hemingway-like man (Ackroyd) and a Martha Gellhorn-like woman (Ann Crumb) discuss how thrilling their love life would be were they somewhere other than Madrid. Nothing of what they say registers as more than vague malaise, which may be traced to The Fifth Column's not being much of a play or, more likely, to the fact that this excerpt isn't long enough to make any point. (The characters' longing for climes other than Civil War-riven Spain is echoed later by other couples, just as pallid, who would like to be where they aren't. This practice is now known as "doing a geographic," and Hemingway and his imagined figures did plenty of it.)

For reasons known to her -- and possibly to her husband Patrick, who could rightfully call Papa "papa" -- Carol Hemingway has been consistent in her choice of second-tier sources. Other bits and pieces she's selected are from works that could unfairly make Hemingway, now fading fast into literary oblivion, seem non-essential. She culls, for instance, from Across the River and Through the Trees and To Have and Have Not, both of which are widely regarded as disposable. (Yes, the latter was filmed twice by Warner Brothers; but that's no indication of literary quality, Hollywood being famous for succeeding best with second-rate work.) Another of the inclusions is "Cat in the Rain," a faint short story from In Our Time in which an American woman (Jessica D. Turner) in an unnamed country spots a shivering cat outside her hotel window and goes to rescue it -- presumably because, though her husband (Ryan Shively) is with her, she identifies with its being abandoned.

The best of the lot, because it does have the impact of a terse short story, is also from the In Our Time collection; it clicks because the original is told almost entirely in dialogue and is therefore not dependent on Hemingway's famous prose rhythms for its effectiveness. In "The Three Day Blow," Nick Adams (Ryan Shively) visits pal Bill (Daniel Freedom Stewart) for some hunting and drinking with the intention of putting a love affair behind him. Here, Hemingway's wrangling with a favorite theme of his -- boys who have grown but not matured -- comes across with loud-and-clear subtlety.

In presenting her father-in-law on stage, Carol Hemingway wants to deal with the man/woman issues that are rife in his oeuvre. It's an honorable and also shrewd intention. Frequently hailed as a man's man and seemingly proud to be, the womanizing author never seems to have fully convinced himself he could function without women, just as Nick Adams can't in "The Three Day Blow." Often, it seems as if Hemingway's fiction was an attempt to work through this knotty personal problem. The boyish men and sophisticated women of A Farewell to Arms and The Sun Also Rises are glaring examples of his autobiographical concerns -- as is, of course, the short story collection blatantly called Men Without Women. But try as she might, Carol Hemingway doesn't make her case with this slight project, which premiered almost four years ago in Hemingway's birthplace of Oak Park, Illinois.

Catch as catch can: Ann Crumb and Jessica D. Turner(Photo: Carol Rosegg)
Catch as catch can: Ann Crumb and Jessica D. Turner
(Photo: Carol Rosegg)
Ironically, the most powerful short story included in It Just Catches is the one told in Cole Porter's "You Don't Know Paree." In less than a 100 words or so, the master composer-lyricist lays out a tale of romantic disillusionment that even the most laconic short story writers would envy. Ann Crumb and Jessica D. Turner take turns with the Porter interludes. Crumb, who has appeared in many a musical, gives them their worldly due, while Turner, whose forays into musical theater seem sparse, tortures them mercilessly. All of the songs are played with piano bar finesse by Marsh Hanson.

(By the way; Though the pairing of machismo poster-boy Hemingway with gay-blade Porter may sound like the setup to a joke, Hemingway apparently respected Porter's songs and sang them around whatever house on whatever continent or island he was inhabiting. The two icons seem to have met at the Gerald Murphys -- she was the much-admired Sara -- and may possibly have encountered one another at Gertrude Stein's Rue de Fleurus salon. Yet in William O'Brien's biography Cole Porter, Hemingway's name only appears once and then insignificantly.)

The cast of It Just Catches, dressed evocatively by David C. Woolard and lit nearly as evocatively by Duane Schuler, does as well as can be expected under the depleted circumstances. David Ackroyd represents Hemingway and his fictional stand-ins manfully, meaning with some uncertainty, while Ann Crumb captures the right dulled gleam in the eyes of the daunted women she plays. Jessica D. Turner redeems her singing by being funny as a doxy in a Michigan bar. Ryan Shively is properly well meaning and baffled as Nick Adams, while Daniel Freedom Stewart is dim-witted affability itself as good friend Bill and is also amusing as Billy Campbell, who hides under the sheets in defeat through the gentle "A Race Pursuit."

It's from this last-mentioned short story that Carol Hemingway takes her title. The bed-clinging Billy Campbell is explaining to Sliding Billy Turner that in pursuit races (don't ask), sliding is helpful. Campbell replies, "I could never slide at all. I can't slide, Billy. It just catches." Likewise, It Just Catches just catches. Hemingway, whose highest praise for anything was to deem it "good," would never have applied that mighty adjective to this endeavor.