Keep dancing, break out the booze, have a ball

Idiot's Delight

By Robert E. Sherwood
Directed by Julie Hamberg
Vital Theatre Company
432 West 42nd St. (212/592-0129)
Equity showcase (closes May 1)
Review by David Mackler

Vital Theatre Company did a valuable public service with its revival of Robert E. Sherwood's Idiot's Delight. To anyone familiar with the 1939 film version (thank you, TCM), or the half-dozen people who saw the notorious 1983 Broadway musical based on it, Sherwood's play is a revelation. And to those who've never heard of it, it's a glorious discovery. This is what plays were like before television.

And director Julie Hamburg cast it with an extremely high quality of actor, ensuring the production's success. Often a 68-year-old play needs something extra to make it interesting, but Hamburg decided to trust the talent of the author (three Pulitzers, including one for this play, isn't shabby), and got her cast to trust it too. And she trusted that the audience would follow the linear (but not simplistic) plot, follow the characters' development, and have something to think about.

The plot, in fact, is deliberately misleading. At the start it could be a comedy about Mrs. Pittaluga (Alessandra A. Bonvicini), owner of a small hotel in the Italian Alps, and Don Navadel (Michael J. Lombardi), an American she has hired to expand the clientele. Then, as the hotel fills up with people of various nationalities eager (but unable) to cross the border into Switzerland, it might be an Agatha Christie-style whodunit, or a melodrama like The V.I.P.s. But instead it's about how 1935 political tensions could ignite into another world war. In 1936 this was heady, almost unimaginable stuff, and showed remarkable prescience. But it's also about character, particularly Harry Van (Ron McClary), a song-and-dance man shepherding Les Blondes Shirley (Katie Brack) and Beulah (Jessi Gotta) around Europe, and the Russian Irene -- Ee-ray-na, if you please (Aimée Hayes) -- who is traveling with Achille Weber (Richard Rice Alan), an arms dealer. It's an allegory also, with the German doctor (Christian Johnstone) whose desire to cure cancer turns into something more ominous, the British honeymooners (Joshua J. Cole, Alyssa Simon) who had hoped to do nothing more than enjoy winter sports, and the proto-Fascist Captain Locicero (Michael Cecchi). But they're more than representational, they're characters, with McClary and especially Hayes keeping the audience on their toes. Their pas de deux of attraction and is-she-who-she-says-she-is was wonderful; with McClary playing more like Jack Carson than Clark Gable, it was more grounded and less movie-star-ish. Each character has his or her own defining moment; plays don't have fade-outs any more the way this one does.

If the small stage didn't quite show the glamour of a 1930s hotel, scenic designer Roberto Sanchez-Camus's mink-covered chairs (faux fur, of course) and stylish lamps made the point quite well. Vanessa Leuck's costumes couldn't have been better for character or style, Suada Perezic provided effective period music, and Carrie Yacono's lighting was subtle and low-key.

Notice that no mention has been made regarding any parallels between Sherwood's plot and current events. None is needed.

Also with Michael Huber, whose accent was pragmatic if undefinable, and Neal Fenton, whose accent was far thicker than it needed to be.

Box Score:

Writing: 2
Directing: 2
Acting: 2
Set: 1
Costumes: 2
Lighting/Sound: 2

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Copyright 2004 David Mackler