The Marriage of Alice B Toklas by Gertrude Stein review – upstaged by wedding guests | Theatre


Attempting to combine absurdist farce, genuine tragedy and an ocean of research, Edward Einhorn’s sweet but unsatisfying play imagines a Jewish wedding for the famous modernist couple Gertrude Stein and Alice B Toklas. With the dialogue looping and careening akin to the way that Stein wrote, Einhorn’s play purports to be about these two remarkable women and the love between them, but the script is far more preoccupied by the idiosyncrasies of the famous men cavorting around the pair.

In 1933, Stein published The Autobiography of Alice B Toklas, about and supposedly by the love of her life. Here, Einhorn toys with authorial voice, with Stein as our narrator. She addresses us directly, Natasha Byrne playing the writer with a stern certainty, introducing each scene and the characters that our four-strong cast are pretending to be in that moment. As they roll through the greats of modernism attending their fantasy wedding – Ernest Hemingway, Pablo Picasso, James Joyce, Alfred North Whitehead, all well-performed but shallow caricatures – the show quickly takes on the guise of an amateur improv skit.

Well-performed but shallow caricatures …Kelly Burke as Picasso and Mark Huckett as Hemingway.
Well-performed but shallow caricatures … Kelly Burke as Picasso and Mark Huckett as Hemingway. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

Alyssa Simon plays Toklas, gentler than Stein but with a wry wit. As she sits reluctantly alongside the other wives of geniuses, the pseudointellectual conversations between their partners grow tedious, with the play seemingly overwhelmed by the need to include every argument modernists ever had with one another. The research put into their discussions is obvious, but the comedy here is lacking. Without being woven into a story, these scenes feel like we’ve stumbled into philosophy class without being warned to do the homework.

The motif of pretending is a weighty one, particularly with the connotations of falsehood attached to queer relationships. But it is only at the very end of the play that the idea is used to piece together the disparate parts of the text. Alice’s moving final monologue, revealing what the couple lost by not being officially wedded, provides a stronger sense of their relationship, and a far heftier emotional kick, than the entire preceding script.

Much of the play is spent in search of understanding what makes a genius. Far more powerful are the moments when that quest is ignored, and focus is instead directed towards the specifics: of the love between these two women and of the imagined wedding they were not allowed to have.

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