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Onstage, the Pen Is Usually Duller Than the Sword

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GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass. — Writing is boring. I should know. I just spent a half-hour revising that first sentence.

Playwrights nevertheless like to write about writers, perhaps because of their shared tolerance for tedium. Yet beyond that, what is there really to say? Anything that fleshes out the person beneath the words tends to diminish the artistry; anything that sticks to the unfiltered words is dull.

Or so it seems to me from shows made about writers I treasure. Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Lowell, E.M. Forster, Edgar Allan Poe, Oscar Wilde, James Baldwin and Toni Morrison have all been put through the dramatic wringer recently, many of them emerging as wet rags.

The latest to become something of a drip in the process is Edith Wharton. To be fair, it’s clear that in writing “Mr. Fullerton” — a play about Wharton, Henry James and their mutual inamorato, Morton Fullerton — Anne Undeland was as besotted as I am by the steely author of classic novels including “The Age of Innocence,” “Ethan Frome” and “The House of Mirth.”

It’s also true that Wharton had an eventful existence away from her pens and notebooks, including the extramarital affair with Undeland’s title character and the quasi-pornography she secretly wrote later. But from the play — and I might argue from any play — you could never guess that a brilliant person was living Wharton’s brilliant life.

“Mr. Fullerton,” which was given its premiere last week by Great Barrington Public Theater, introduces the novelist, in her mid-40s, as a buttoned-up spinster; though she has been married for two decades, her marriage is sexless, childless and nearly loveless. After being seduced in 1907 by Fullerton, a somewhat younger and caddish journalist, she opens herself to passion while, the play implies, closing herself to art. The first thing we see in the Great Barrington production, which runs through Sunday, is the Paris apartment Wharton (Dana M. Harrison) rents from the Vanderbilts; the writing desk is under a dust cover but the big brass bed gleams with promise.

I will not attempt to prosecute a play deliberately written as a fantasia for its factual improbabilities. (That said: I can’t really see Wharton flipping pages of fresh prose all over the room for her maid, Posy, to pick up and paginate.) My problem with “Mr. Fullerton” has to do with its fictional improbabilities. Fullerton, in real life apparently a magnetic, equal opportunity Lothario — James called him “magically tactile” — is written here (and played by Marcus Kearns accordingly) as more of a puppy than a hound, making campy references to Wharton by her childhood name, Pussy Jones, and proleptically quoting Mae West. When he ghosts her, you’re relieved.

Well, no one cares about Fullerton anyway, but the portraits of Wharton and James (Glenn Barrett) as giggling, snarking, gobsmacked adolescents undermine their enormous stature as writers, which the play nevertheless depends on as the foundation of its interest. I wouldn’t have minded that with James, whose fussbudget pomposity is always worth some deflation.

But keep your satirical hands off my Edith! Her achievement is in many ways greater than James’s, given the hostility to women writers of her vintage; certainly, she outsold him. More than that, her actual feelings about the Fullerton affair speak to a far greater seriousness and acuity then the play can dramatize. Though she vacillated on whether her brief experience of physical passion helped her as a human being — she wrote that Fullerton woke her “from a long lethargy” in which “all one side of me was asleep” but also that her life was “better before” she knew him — there’s no confusion from a literary standpoint. Coming out of the affair she produced “Ethan Frome.”

That superlatively grim novel provides “Mr. Fullerton” with one of its best moments, which the playwright sets up perfectly. When a newspaper reports that a high school girl back home has been killed in a sledding accident, Posy (Myka Plunkett) immediately bursts into tears and explains that the girl is the daughter who “could have been” hers. Instead, she was the child of a man Posy once loved but rejected because being in service to Wharton offered a better life.

Though Posy is an invention, readers of “Ethan Frome” will immediately recognize the story of the sledding accident from the climax of the novel. In this, Undeland and “Mr. Fullerton” get something very right about writing: the ruthlessness of a writer’s thievery, robbing reality (even someone else’s) for material.

It’s that ruthlessness that is otherwise missing here, and also in other basically sympathetic portraits of literary artists. In Sarah Ruhl’s play “Dear Elizabeth,” based on Bishop’s correspondence with Lowell, the poets simply read at each other, which is sometimes lovely but almost never dramatic. In Matthew Lopez’s “The Inheritance,” E.M. Forster is reduced to a gentle grandpa to new generations of gay men. The opposite problem undoes Poe in several plays about him, including one called “Red-Eye to Havre de Grace”: He is so exhaustingly mad that you cannot imagine his having the spare energy to find even one rhyme for “nevermore,” let alone 18.

In all these works, the actors, designers and directors have conspired to support the portraiture with approximately accurate accents, diction, costumes and hairstyles. “Mr. Fullerton” also has the amusing verisimilitude of being produced, on the campus of Bard College at Simon’s Rock here, just 13 miles south of Wharton’s grand home, the Mount, in Lenox. (A line about the late arrival of spring in the Berkshires received a knowing chuckle the night I attended.) But in the end, all those details are unimportant, and maybe even distracting — or at least Mr. Fullerton’s mustache was.

I say that thinking that the best portrait of writers I’ve seen in a theatrical production recently involved no such imitation. The opposite, really. In “Lessons in Survival,” a series of historical re-enactments conceived and performed by the multigenerational members of the Commissary collective and produced by the Vineyard Theater last year, there was no attempt whatever to match the physical characteristics of the actors, or even their gender, with those of the writers they played: Baldwin, Morrison, Nikki Giovanni, Angela Davis, Maya Angelou and others. Nor was sonic verisimilitude attempted; it didn’t need to be because the actors lip-synced the writers’ recorded words while embodying them in their expressions and postures.

It was that disjuncture, that refusal to locate genius within the limitations of the body, that made the episodes so effective and convincing. Leaving affairs and drinking problems out of the picture, they honored what really makes writers dramatic: their muscly ideas, duking it out in words.

Mr. Fullerton

Through Sunday at the Daniel Arts Center, Great Barrington, Mass. greatbarringtonpublictheater.org. Running time: 2 hours.

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