She Likes to Talk
There is a telling moment in “Paris Is Paris Is Paris: Gertrude Stein in Paris,” a one-woman show by Tom Parks currently playing at the Carl Cherry Center, in which Gertrude Stein (Carol Daly) expresses her disgust for the callous disregard that James Joyce showed his one-time mentor Sylvia Beach. Beach, founder of the Shakespeare & Company bookstore in Paris, had supported Joyce and published Ulysses when no one else would; after it became a success and a world-wide cause célèbre, he dumped her for a bigger contract, leaving her in financial peril. In Parks’s play, this act of disloyalty earns Stein’s swift condemnation. Yet in Daly’s subtle portrayal, one can imagine an even deeper source of displeasure: the unwelcome knowledge that Joyce’s famously modernist novel will be remembered as more important to the history of literature than anything Stein ever wrote. She quickly changes the subject, but the feeling lingers: anything that threatens Gertrude Stein’s sense of herself as the most important person in the room must be banished.
Parks’s witty, well-constructed play is presented as a visit with the grand expatriate author in a salon in her apartment in Paris. The year is 1945. Picasso’s sensitive portrait of Stein hangs on a wall. She sits at a small table; pours herself tea; stands up when the moods strikes her; exhorts the audience to “listen, listen!”; recites some of her writing; reminisces about her past and the famous artists and writers she has encountered; and shares details of a life spent with “Miss Toklas,” the life companion whose “autobiography” (written by Stein) was and remains Stein’s most celebrated book.
Some of the most enjoyable scenes in the play are when Daly winningly recites Stein’s own work, such as the tender Valentine poem she wrote to Toklas (“she is very lovely and mine which is very lovely”), and a brief, rousing rendition of “On the Trail of the Lonesome Pine,” a cowboy song Stein liked to sing for guests. Despite a life lived abroad, Stein would always consider herself resolutely American.
Daly is a compelling performer and masters Parks’s long, intermissionless script with confidence and flair. One senses that she could dig even deeper into Stein’s character if given the chance, but this visit with Gertrude Stein is on the whole a polite affair, with drama and conflict kept at bay. Though I found “Paris Is Paris Is Paris” entertaining, I also found myself wishing for some moment of imaginative fancy, some theatrical probing of Stein’s inner life—something I couldn’t find in a book. The pre-recorded introduction and conclusion contribute to a certain academic, encyclopedic atmosphere.
Yet Parks takes a palpable delight in Stein’s inventive wordplay and his play is as much a writerly homage to a modernist master as a depiction of an aging woman in a chatty and nostalgic mood. “I like to talk,” Stein says, and talk she does. It is a credit to Daly and Parks that our interest is held throughout the show, which runs, perhaps too long, at nearly an hour and a half.
Near the end of the play, Stein reads from an exchange of letters between “Miss Toklas” and “Miss Stein.” Alice would like to express her mounting displeasure at the visits of Ernest Hemingway, who is uncouth; also, she would like to know how Miss Stein will take her tea. “I take my tea with neither milk nor lemon nor sugar,” Miss Stein replies, ignoring the troubling reference to Hemingway—another closed door to whatever shadows hung behind the mask of Gertrude Stein’s singular, art-filled life.
“Paris Is Paris Is Paris: Gertrude Stein in Paris,” will play at the Carl Cherry Center, 4th and Guadeloupe, in Carmel, Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 pm and Sundays at 3:00 p.m., through April 1. Call (831) 620-2163 for tickets.