French Letters

Times being what they are, one line in Act 2 of the play Transatlantic Liaison is guaranteed to goose the audience to attention. "What a thankless people, the French,'' growls Chicago author Nelson Algren to his paramour, French Existentialist writer Simone de Beauvoir.

On opening night at Theatre Three, where the play is onstage now in a lusty, film noirish production, the crowd hooted and applauded this put-down, which has nothing to do with current events, of course. The two-character drama by French playwright Fabrice Rozié is based on love letters exchanged between the writers from the late 1940s to the early 1960s. Algren's complaint about the French in those postwar years and the modern audience's knee-jerk reaction to it merely underscore the contentious relationship we Yanks have had and continue to have with those people.

Maybe part of our clash of cultures and ideas lies in how differently we regard amour, or at least that's what comes to mind while watching Algren and de Beauvoir grapple with their white-hot attraction in Transatlantic Liaison. The American way with passion is to hope it leads to love and commitment. For the French, love and passion may remain mutually exclusive, even experienced in simultaneous relationships. The play asks which is stronger--love or passion?--and lets us watch as two fascinating characters discover the answer for themselves.

Algren (played with sweaty intensity by Matthew Stephen Tompkins) and de Beauvoir (mature and beautiful Elizabeth Rothan) meet "like a corny movie story," as she puts it. Already a famous feminist author in 1947, de Beauvoir embarks on a tour of the States. Algren, not yet well-known, is her Chicago escort, awkwardly offering a sightseeing trip to the slaughterhouses. Instead, de Beauvoir enjoys the City of Big Shoulders by going to bed with a writer who has them. And let's just say right here that allowing Matthew Tompkins repeatedly to strip down to his tight white undershirt for love scenes with Rothan makes the most of a meaty role and a muscular actor.

But back to the storyline. At 40, Algren and de Beauvoir need love. He is divorced. She lives with her mentor and companion of nearly 20 years, Jean-Paul Sartre, in an arrangement that has long ceased to be physical. Early in the play, de Beauvoir tells Algren he's ignited real sexual passion for the first time in her life. He tells her she is the first real love he's ever had. "If there was ever a woman made for me, it was you," he says between smothering bouts of kissing.

And there you have it. She's content with all-consuming passion. For her, Algren represents the exotic, ideal boy-toy, a fellow writer who's great in the sack and who doesn't risk running into her father figure, Sartre, down at the local boîte.

Algren, bless his heart, wants passion and love. That de Beauvoir is brilliant comes as blessing and burden. "I never think of you as a brainy woman," he says. She takes it as a compliment. What smart woman in her 40s doesn't dream of being treated as a sex object?

Although Algren and de Beauvoir's fling comes close to the real thing, it is doomed by their divergent values. She's a darling of the Parisian literati. He hangs out with pimps and junkies and lives in a squalid one-room flat on the Polish side of Chi-town. De Beauvoir treats her beau to glamorous vacations in Mexico, but always returns to Paris and her beloved Sartre. She tells Algren that Sartre is her only "true friend" and that the French philosopher deserves all the credit for her success and personal growth. She can sleep guilt-free with the American, she says, because "I don't bring Existentialism to bed."

Algren begs de Beauvoir to marry him, but when she returns to Paris, he doesn't pursue her. Inevitably, she comes back to Chicago and Algren's arms, blithely believing the commuting can continue indefinitely. She gives Algren permission to sleep around. When he does, she's consumed with jealousy. For all their animal attraction and intellectual bonhomie, de Beauvoir and Algren simply are too incompatible to last. She is too French. He, too American.

As theatrical fodder, this story of fiery literary stars and their star-crossed romantic flameout makes for two fast hours of ripe drama and rich language. The script of Transatlantic Liaison comes from the authors' own writings. Playwright Rozié drew from more than 300 unpublished letters--de Beauvoir wrote all of hers to Algren in English and he never threw one away--and uses their words to construct a series of flashbacks as de Beauvoir recalls the affair later in life. She does most of the talking throughout both acts. He does most of the grabbing and ripping off of garments. Body Heat with better dialogue.

What's so great about the production at Theatre Three is how well director John McLean, who brought this project from Paris to Dallas, translates Transatlantic's sensuality through his talented cast. With the wrong actors, this could be a too-talky two-hander about a pair of horny middle-aged writers. But in casting Tompkins and Rothan, McLean gets mature actors equally matched in their acting styles and in their ability to inhabit complex characters who express real emotional and sexual abandon onstage.

Rothan's de Beauvoir makes a charming transition from cool intellectual to lovestruck girly-girl, with slight detours into hysteria now and again. Tompkins plays Nelson Algren as a literary Stanley Kowalski, a toothpick-sucking beast who sweeps the woman off her feet and minutes later shuts her up by saying, "Are you finally through making noise with your mouth?"

Then comes the riveting moment Algren realizes de Beauvoir is gone for good. Curled on the bed in the fetal position, he hugs his lover's pillow and buries his face in it to find her scent. The room is silent except for his sobs. Powerful stuff and heartbreaking, too, as performed by Tompkins. Hard to think of two better local actors to play these difficult roles. The chemistry between them--yowza.

Technically, all the elements at Theatre Three serve the performances. Set designer Harland Wright uses simple pieces of furniture to evoke the writers' separate apartments and the odd cafe or beach. Costume designer Patty Korbelic Williams gives Rothan and Tompkins period-appropriate layers they can shed quickly when things get physical.

An unexpected feature of Transatlantic Liaison is live music composed by Areski Belkacem. The haunting notes of a cello played behind an upstage scrim by Camilla Boatright add a lovely layer of texture to the sound of the actors' voices.

The affair between de Beauvoir and Algren was finished by the late 1950s. She wrote about it in a thinly disguised novel, The Mandarins (also used as source material for the play), and Algren so resented the book that he savagely attacked it and her in print for the next 30 years. They may have ended on a bitter note, but their relationship produced astonishing "offspring." Within two years of her first encounter with Algren, de Beauvoir had completed her famous feminist study The Second Sex, and he had won the National Book Award for his gritty novel about heroin addiction, The Man with the Golden Arm. That book and one other, Walk on the Wild Side, were made into films in the late '50s.

The work of Simone de Beauvoir remains timeless. Algren's novels have slipped into obscurity. These days his name more often shows up as the source of a quote that's become part of American folk wisdom. In 1956, Algren gave Newsweek these three rules for living: "Never play cards with a man called Doc. Never eat at a place called Mom's. Never sleep with a woman whose troubles are worse than your own."

Good thing he didn't heed all of his own advice.

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Elaine Liner
Contact: Elaine Liner