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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  NY Theater Reviews

 
THE FIFTH COLUMN
at the Mint Theater

UP IN ERNIE'S ROOM
By Robert Cashill

  Nicole Shalhoub & Kelly AuCoin/PH:Richard Termine

Earlier this month, Lisa Emery played roving reporter Martha Gellhorn in an unsuccessful Keen Company bio-play, The Maddening Truth. Emery-as- Gellhorn spent a fair chunk of time maddening over her relationship with Ernest Hemingway, who she had an affair with amid filing her first famed dispatches from Madrid's Hotel Florida during the Spanish Civil War. The Fifth Column, another recovery effort from the Mint, shows why she was so upset. The Gellhorn character that Hemingway concocted for this stab at playwriting, Dorothy Bridges, lounges in bed in her lingerie or, when vertical, tries on fox furs as combat erupts outside her windows. The program notes that the Mint secured a vintage typewriter to decorate Bridges' hotel room, but the keys go conspicuously unpecked. While we hear that Bridges is making headway in her career our glamour gal, played haplessly by Heidi Armbuster, spends the show romancing the Hemingway stand-in, American counterespionage agent Philip Rawlings (Kelly AuCoin), who is ensconced in the adjoining suite.

The Fifth Column is a peculiar show, one that indicates that as a playwright Hemingway was a helluva short story writer. Dismayed when the play was adapted against his wishes and given a flop Theater Guild production in 1940, he never wrote for the stage again. The production is essentially a tale of two rooms in the bomb-blasted but functioning hotel, a fine set by Vicki R. Davis Hers, where the insipid, bad movie-ish mushy stuff transpires, and his, where an anguished, world-weary Rawlings hatches capers with an international cadre of wet-behind-the-ears volunteers allied against Franco and his fifth column of fascist sympathizers making mischief on Madrid's streets. This would appear to be more the writer in his element, and there are one or two pulse-quickening scenes of intrigue and sudden death given extra drama by Jane Shaw's enveloping sound design.

The Mint's artistic director, Jonathan Bank, has however fumbled this long-delayed premiere of Papa's unexpurgated but unwieldy play. Casting can be a weakness at the company it killed its last production, of Tolstoy's morose The Power of Darkness, and cripples this more tolerable reclamation. In a cliche part Armbuster can't help but come to grief, and the show drifts off to sleep when Bridges is lolling about her pillows. The supporting cast tries on a variety of accents but AuCoin plays Rawlings as a one-note whiner, a man of action too vaguely rendered. Hemingway must have pictured a stalwart Gary Cooper, the star of the film of his classic contribution to the literature of the conflict, For Whom the Bell Tolls the Mint gives us a jittery James Woods. I appreciate that the company fights the good fight on the part of forgotten shows but the failure of The Fifth Column is partly its author's, for insufficiently dramatizing a chapter of his life, and partly its rescuer's, for sabotaging the production.

 


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