Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
In 1936, Idiot's Delight was both a critical and popular hit. That it starred the luminous Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne no doubt helped draw an audience, but it also addressed issues very much of its time. In 1936, the world was keenly aware of the mounting storm taking shape in Europe, with Adolf Hitler's fast rise in Germany, Benito Mussolini's fascist state in Italy, and Spain on the brink of civil war. Sherwood, who developed a deep strain of pacifism after his experience being gassed and wounded fighting in World War I, lays out the growing menace of extreme nationalisma chilling line asks "When does patriotism harden into xenophobia?"and the prospect of another catastrophic war. Were this a straight ahead political tract, it would most likely not have gained an audience. Instead, Sherwood builds a romantic truffle around his cautionary message, making it more palatable, even entertaining. . It blends elements of romantic comedy with war melodrama, with song and dance for good measure.
Sherwood concocts a political-military crisis set in the lounge of a posh resort atop a mountain in the Italian Alps, from which there is a spectacular view encompassing Switzerland, Austria, and Germany. There is also a view of the air field from which military planes fly out, which makes the vicinity an enemy target. Due to the crisis, the border is closed and a collection of international guests are stranded at the resort. These include Mr. and Mrs. Cherry, young British newlyweds on their honeymoon; a German scientist close to finding a cure for cancer and desperate to reach an available lab in Switzerland; an arms merchant and his beautiful companion Irene, who claims not only to be Russian but to be a close relation to the Romanoffs; Quillery, a fiery French socialist unafraid to speak the truth as he sees it; and American song and dance man Harry Van, on tour with a troupe of three blonde chorines of the ilk for whom the term "dumb blonde" was regrettably coined. Also present are Mr. and Mrs. Rossi, an aged Italian couple who move only by assisting one another as they pass through the lounge.
The hotel staff includes Pittaluga, the sharp-tongued proprietress; Donald Navadel, an American who somehow landed in this spot and became the resort's social director; a cheerful and obliging waiter named Dumpsty, with a romantic notion of going off to war; and a pianist. Lastly is the border patrol led by Captain Locicero, aided by two officers who speak only Italian. As might be expected given the set-up, each person's personal need to be out of harm's way is revealed as well as their views on the wisdomor lack thereofof states taking up arms against one another. To lighten the mood, Harry has his "girls" prepare a show for the resort guests, though this does little to dispel the dark cloud in the air, especially after Quillery is taken by the guard for speaking out against fascism. A special connection forms between Harry and Irene, (the Lunt and Fontanne roles, respectively), though she is clearly under the thumb of the arms merchant.
The intentions here are unassailable, and for 1936, no doubt the plotting was clever, perhaps even ingenious. Sherwood was certainly prescient to anticipate the war as he did three years before it began in Europe, five years before the United States entered. He makes reference to the rising tide of anti-Semitism, the degradation of the League of Nations, and Japanese aggression against the United States. Yet the plot points no longer feel new to us, and much of what happens feels predictable. Sherwood's anti-war views still have merit, though we see them through a much more complex lens with the passage of so much history. Often a character enters the resort's lounge (which is the setting for the entire play) for no discernible reason other than to deliver a few lines, then leaves again. A scene with Harry running his troupe through a rehearsal feels like filler, and the dumb blonde jokes fall flat. The repeated use by the Americans of a derogatory word for Italian is historically accurate, but discomfiting.
What this adds up to is that Idiot's Delight comes across as dated. That is quite likely why it is seldom performed, in spite of the awards and audience it earned when it was new, offering important reflections on what was going on in the world right at that moment. The romantic truffle I mentioned earlier, constructed by Sherwood around his earnest message, is well past its fresh-sale date. Director Craig Johnson keeps his large cast moving swiftly, with no time lost to transitions, and always shows us where to focus on the busy stage, but his good efforts are not able to refresh the dated material.
Even with the play less than compelling, there are terrific performances on on the stage. Stacia Rice is terrific as the cagy Irene, trying to maintain a deception that actually costs her far more than she has to gain. On cue, she is funny, bored, sexy, good-hearted or terrified, and she wears the elegant clothes designed by Kathy Kohl with panache. As Harry, John Middleton is also a stand-out, racing through his dialogue in prime 1930s wise-guy fashion and projecting sincerity that is absolutely necessary for us to believe in him. Karen Wiese-Thompson is impressive as the dedicated scientist who comes to terms with her future. Kory LaQuess Pullam rings true raising Quillery's righteous anger, while David Coral is stony cold as the unscrupulous arms dealer. Eric Knutson effectively conveys Captain Locicero's desire to be kind in spite of the tensions, and conveys his regret about where this is heading. At first, Adelin Phelps and Gabriel Murphy are a bit overly lovey-dovey as Mrs. and Mr. Cherry, but become more somber as they recognize the gravity of their plight, with Phelps doing justice to Mrs. Cherry's brave attempt to speak out against brutality. Bonni Allen, Becca Hart, and Karissa Lade play the chorines straight out of central casting, as funny as the creaky material allows. Finally, Sam Landman, in a role that could remain in the background, makes Dumpsty a truly touching character.
Michael Hoover's set provides an alpine vista through the windows of the resort's lounge, while Dietrich Poppen's lighting draws in and out as day turns to night and back to day, and as the various guests become more fretful over their dilemma. Anita Kelling has provided excellent sound design, including airplanes and the sirens for air-raid drills, always with the threat that it may be the real thing. Lucinda Holshue, as dialect coach, was no doubt kept busy working on British, French, Italian, German, Russian, and wise-guy American accents, and some actors hang on to their accents better than others.
Girl Friday Productions must be congratulated on raising a little-known play, heralded in its day, and giving it a mounting with a large and talented cast and design team. There is much to admire, and the production is worth seeing for its many strong performances, especially Stacia Rice. The play introduces today's audience to Robert E. Sherwood, who was a notable literary presence from the 1920s through his death in 1955: a founding member of the legendary Algonquin Round Table, winner of four Pulitzer Prizes (three for drama, one for biography), Academy Award winner for his screenplay for The Best Years of Our Lives, and a speech writer for FDR during World War II. If the play no longer speaks to us with a vibrant, compelling voice, the issue it raisesindividual response to political upheavalis as current as this morning's news.
Idiot's Delight presented by Girl Friday Productions at Park Square Theatre's Boss Stage through July 23, 2017. 20 West Seventh Place, Saint Paul, MN, 55102. Tickets: $40.00 - $60.00; age 30 and under: $21.00; seniors age 62: $5.00 discount; military: $10.00 discount; rush tickets: $24.00 cash only starting one hour before performance for remaining seats. For tickets call 5651-291-7005 or go to www.girlfridayproductions.org.
Writer: Robert E. Sherwood; Director: Craig Johnson; Scenic Design: Michael Hoover; Costume Design: Kathy Kohl; Lighting Design and Technical Director: Dietrich Poppen; Sound Design: Anita Kelling; Properties Design: Abbee Warmboe; Music Director: Kevin Dutcher; Choreographer: C. Ryan Shipley; Dramaturg: Kit Gordon; Dialect Coach: Lucinda Holshue; Italian Coach: Donna Porfiri; Stage Manager: Laden Kissinger; Production Manager: Brian Columbus; Assistant Director: Sofia Lindgren Galloway;
Cast: Bonni Allen (Shirley/Signora Rossi), Kirby Bennett (Pittaluga), David Beukema (Donald Navadel), David Coral (Achille Weber), Kevin Dutcher (Paleta), Becca Hart (Bebe), Eric Knutson (Captain Locicero), Karissa Lade (Beulah), Sam Landman (Dumpsty), John Middleton (Harry Van), Gabriel Murphy (Mr. Cherry), Adelin Phelps (Mrs. Cherry), Kory LaQuess Pullam (Quillery), Stacia Rice (Irene), C. Ryan Shipley (Second Officer), Mike Swan (First Officer/Signor Rossi), Karen Wiese-Thompson (Dr. Waldersee).