Review – The Marriage of Alice B Toklas by Gertrude Stein – Jermyn Street Theatre

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Two women sit next to each other on a stage filled with white furniture and white frames. “I am Getrude Stein, playing Alice B Toklas,” says one to the audience. “I am Alice B Toklas, playing Getrude Stein, unless I am playing Getrude Stein playing Alice B Toklas,” says the other, to the audience. And on this wordplay goes back and forth until your brain is fighting to make the words make sense … only it does, and it makes a poem, and it brings to life a little world, of two women who long ago loved each other in a little apartment in Paris, and had friends who loved them, and rich lives, full of art and wordplay and fun.

The Marriage of Alice B Toklas by Gertrude Stein has a structure of poetry and playfulness that make it feel like it could have been a play written by Stein (Natasha Byrne). There are two other actors, primarily playing Ernest Hemingway (who is berated by Stein for not letting himself show the “sensitive boy inside, far more interesting”) and Pablo Picasso (who gives detailed information about keeping your mistresses away from your wife). This scene-chewing duo (Mark Huckett and Kelly Burke, respectively) provide foils for Stein and Toklas’ generally kind (but at times very sharp) wit. They play a bouquet of roles – as wives, mistresses, other writers, and even Alfred North Whitehead, the mathematician Toklas (Alyssa Simon) uses to wind Hemingway up as “the third true genius I have ever known” (pricking his ego over and over again)., and keep the energy high, while Toklas and Stein provide the absolute calm at the center of this whirlwind of art, philosophy, and philandering.

While I can’t vouch for the veracity of the depictions of any of these characters or life in the Stein-Toklas household, I loved seeing these 20th century legends being silly and human on stage. Did they love themselves a little too much? It seems quite likely. Did Toklas and Stein hold their friends warmly in their hearts, despite seeing their imperfections? I’m sure it was so. And along with providing some historical framing for the story of Alice and Getrude’s life, the “other artists” provide much context for women’s lives in Paris. And, yes, more jokes. One of my favorites is when Picasso is trying to get Stein to praise his poetry … “But why did you say nothing about it?” “Well, you know how Jean Cocteau’s drawings were not merely bad, but repugnant?” “Well, yes.” “Sometimes when you’re a genius you have to learn your limitations.” (*This is my best memory of the conversation – I was too busy laughing to write it down verbatim.)

I realize this play might not be for everyone – a simple tale of domestic bliss between two women would be enough to chase off some, the intellectual folderol might disincline others – but I found it the absolute incarnation of why I come to Jermyn Street over and over again – to see an intimate play, done simply, which lets my intellect take flight and also manages to move me. It deserves a sold out run. I was glad to be there at the beginning.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Tuesday March 22, 2022. It continues through April 16th. Running time about 90 minutes.)

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5 Responses to “Review – The Marriage of Alice B Toklas by Gertrude Stein – Jermyn Street Theatre”

  1. John K987 (@JohnK987) Says:

    I booked this a while back for my trip next month. Was worried it was a mistake, but your review makes it sound like I will enjoy it. Thanks!

    • webcowgirl Says:

      I thought it was a very good bit of playwriting! Also there are three Mike Bartlett things on, try to see any of them!

  2. John K987 (@JohnK987) Says:

    I also have a ticket to Cock. Not going to see the 47th as I hate Trump so much I can’t even stand to see an actor playing him. Even the marvelous Bertie Carvel! I have booked a lot of shows (over 30) – it’s been a long pandemic and I am probably overdoing it. I have never been to the Wilton Music Hall. Was considering the All Male HMS Pinafore. Thoughts?

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