By Ted Hoover
Pittsburgh Current Theater Critic
When you reach 101 years of age, you could rightly brag that you know a lot of people. But that’s nothing for writer A. E. Hotchner (born in 1917) – most of the people he knows have been cultural superstars. There are few folks who can say that they ran with the bulls in Pamplona alongside Ernest Hemingway in addition to writing Doris Day’s autobiography. He helped Sophia Loren put her life story into book form and also helped his friend Paul Newman create the “Newman’s Own” charity food products line.
According to Hotchner, one of the promises he made to Hemingway, back when they were hunting in Idaho, drinking in Paris and fishing in Cuba was that someday he’d adapt Hemingway’s classic novel The Old Man and the Sea for the stage. And now the Pittsburgh Playhouse Rep Company helps him fulfill that promise with the world premiere of Hotchner’s adaptation, written in collaboration with his son Tim Hotchner.
The Old Man and the Sea continues through February 17 at the Pittsburgh Playhouse. 305 Forbes Avenue, Downtown. 412/392-8200. www.pittsburghplayhouse.com
The Rep supplies some additional star power as well with the casting of Broadway veteran Anthony Crivello in the title role. The production, directed by the Playhouse’s Artistic Director Ronald Allan-Lindblom, is also the only offering from The Rep Company this season as the Playhouse and Point Park University’s performance companies pulled up stakes in Oakland and moved into their new downtown home.
The result is an Old Man with which everyone involved can be proud. The Hotchners’ adaptation is wonderfully spare, uncluttered and to the point. Crivello carries the bulk of the show as the wizened man going out to sea in his little boat hoping to make, perhaps, one last big catch before he goes to that great fishbowl in the sky. In this adaptation the book’s narration is read to us by Hemingway himself, here played by David Cabot. In lesser hands this could have been unbearable but the Hotchners do a great job allowing Hemingway’s own life to inform the story of the Old Man without overwhelming it.
Crivello is a commanding stage presence and effortlessly makes real the Old Man’s propulsive drive as well as the enormous physical and emotional cost of his last battle with the sea. Hemingway (and/or the Hotchners) haven’t given the character much of a dramatic range; it’s 90 intermissionless minutes of brute force and exhaustion, but Crivello – with the intelligent, knowing and purposeful direction of Allan-Lindblom – finds a large variety of shades within that palette.
Cabot’s Hemingway provides solid and precise support bolstering Crivello’s performance and never calling attention to his own. Gabriel Florentino brings a sad innocence to the role of Manolin and the remarkable cellist Simon J.C. Cummings snakes through the production providing underscoring and texture.
Britton Mauk, Michael Montgomery, Calvin Anderson, Steve Shapiro and William “Buzz” Miller are the crew responsible for the set, costumes, lighting, sound and video of the production and what they create onstage brings Hemingway’s world to life.
It’s a curious fact that when I mentioned to various friends I was reviewing The Old Man and the Sea each said the same thing: “I had to read that in high school … I never finished it.” Hotchner père and fils have done a fine job putting the work on stage but, even with as talented and honest as it is, it’s never entirely clear why. Does The Old Man and the Sea still speak to us? (Judging from the reactions of my friends, I’m not really sure it ever did.) I’m not saying that it can’t, just that right now it isn’t. And that’s a big challenge for the adaptors. Hemingway’s literary “star” isn’t quite the supernova it once was and the cultural zeitgeist seems to have moved beyond this man vs. nature, man vs. himself, man vs. God tale. A lot of incredible work has gone into creating a curiously dusty evening.