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Creating Ernest Hemingway as a stage character is a more daunting task than climbing Kilimanjaro. But Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter John deGroot, the author of a new play, "Papa," and actor Len Cariou, team up to do it successfully, reawakening interest in the life and work of the man John Eastman once accused of "wearing false hair on his chest."

Setting the action in Cuba on the day on which Hemingway's wife Mary leaves him, deGroot has created a Hemingway whose response to desertion is rage, voracious alcoholic consumption, and obsessive storytelling--even as he warns us, "Never trust a man who tells stories."

Always subverting himself, Hemingway gives away more than he means to. At one point, he begins shooting birds from his veranda, imagining that they are other writers: "That one was Willie Faulkner, the man who wrote the world's longest sentence. Bang!"

By and large, "Papa" is a psycho-sexual exploration of Hemingway's ferocious assertion of masculinity. For deGroot spotlights the earliest years when the mother dressed little Ernest in dresses and let his curly hair grow long.

And the key line in deGroot's argument comes when our Hemingway declares, "I have been killing things ever since I stopped wearing curls." But then the key question becomes: Is this deGroot's invention, put in the mouth of Hemingway in order to prove a presumed point?

Len Cariou's bravura performance crowns a lustrous career. And Cariou gets to play King Lear again when Hemingway tries to out-thunder the thunder in a climactic electrical storm. (The storm wins, due to John Gomada and Christopher Todd's sound design, accompanied by F. Mitchell Dana's lighting design.)

Santo Loquasto's wonderfully articulated set, a memory museum with three rifles hanging on the wall, looks more like a hunting lodge in Ketchum, Idaho, than a hacienda in Cuba, subliminally suggesting the despair that would overtake Hemingway in the end.

Filled quite literally with sturm und drang, deGroot's "Papa" provides a quiet and overwhelming epiphany at the close, pointing to the mysticism implicit in Hemingway's spare style--a style ever seeking "to take the truth and make it even more true."

Presented by Eric Krebs et al. at the Douglas Fairbanks Theater, 432 W. 42nd St., NYC, May 5

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