Idiot’s Delight eventually lives up to the second half of its title in Soulpepper’s current overstuffed revival, which packs its main stage with 20 actors and three musicians, and three acts into two.
Robert E. Sherwood’s 1936 premonition in the form of a play comes from that incredibly rich and formally fascinating period of American drama between the World Wars.
We’re at the Hotel Monte Gabriele – an Italian resort up in the mountains, looking out over three other countries: Switzerland, Austria and Germany. It’s hurting for clientele until a train headed to Geneva is unexpectedly stopped at the border by a friendly fascist named Captain Locicero (Paolo Santalucia).
Now business is booming as variety of nationalities are forced to stay the night: A young honeymooning British couple; a mysterious Russian consort named Irene (Raquel Duffy); a German cancer researcher (William
Webster); a loud-mouthed French socialist (Gregory Prest); and an American encyclopedia-salesman-turned-manager named Harry Van (Dan Chameroy) and the five-blonde cabaret act he’s been touring around Europe.
As it turns out, the continent is on the brink of war – and Italian bombers from the base of the mountain have headed off to bomb Paris. What is there to do at the end of the world except drink and dance? (Despite the name of the hotel and the apocalyptic atmosphere, Van’s blondes don’t perform Cole Porter’s Blow Gabriel, Blow, but It’s De-Lovely.)
Idiot’s Delight premiered three years before the Second World War would officially break out, and five before Pearl Harbor – which is what earns Sherwood “unlikely Cassandra” status, as assistant director Paula Wing notes in the program. The script’s great strength is that it’s hard to know what side of the debate over whether the Americans should join the war or not Sherwood’s play would support; indeed, the playwright, largely forgotten even thought he won as many Pulitzers as Eugene O’Neill, was a Great War vet turned postwar pacifist eventually convinced that fascism was worth fighting against.
These multitudes are contained in a play that is an interesting contrast to Bernard Shaw’s 1939 Geneva,which the Shaw Festival staged this year in a rewritten version; that’s another cusp-of-war fantasy in which representatives of a half-dozen nationalities and political ideologies are contrived into a single location.
Idiot’s Delight, indeed, is perhaps what Shaw would have written if he were an American, or romantic at least – which is to say there’s an optimist-in-spite-of-it-all tone and a few song-and-dance numbers thrown in. The play even features a poor man’s Undershaft, a Machiavellian munitions manufacturer named Achille Weber (the ever-reliably intriguing Diego Matamoros), who is staying at the hotel with Irene.
In its first act, director Albert Schultz’s production seems like a long line of dominoes that someone has very carefully set up, but then forgot to set in motion. It’s a parade of accents and postures – and those saddled with Yankee characters and the accompanying corny, faux-folksy dialogue are particularly prone to lapse into Guys and Dolls mode. This initial half is also hampered by the fact that it’s actually the play’s first two thirds.
Feeling both rushed and overly long as a consequence, only a very few of the bit parts blossom in the background. Steffi Didomenicantonio is ebullient as a bubble-blowing showgirl, while Evan Buliung is a joy as a waiter of no-fixed nationality. (He does the impossible at the start of the show – walking onstage, starting to cry to music, and making it believable and touching.)
After the intermission, Schultz’s production comes into focus as the play’s chaos disappears and attention is paid to to Harry Van and Irene, who are either meeting each other for the first time – or reuniting after a one-night stand in Omaha five years before. Some of the artificiality of both Chameroy and Duffy’s performances disappears and a real relationship emerges to grab onto amidst the hustle and bustle of war breaking out. Finally, what should be a fever dream generates some real heat.
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