Ernest Hemingway wrote The Fifth Column in 1937 when he was a war correspondent in Madrid during the Spanish Civil War. Since it hasn't been professionally produced in America, except in a mangled 1940 adaptation, one might assume that Papa Hemingway had written a stinker. But the Mint Theater's generally strong production shows that the great novelist wasn't a bad playwright. The Fifth Column plays like an old Warner Bros. war movie, boasting espionage, heroes and villains, nighttime bombings, and a generous helping of romance.
It's the romance-or rather, romances-that made the play too risqué in its day. In the opening scene the beautiful magazine writer Dorothy Bridges (Heidi Armbruster ), a spoiled Vassar grad, abruptly dumps her lover Robert Preston (Joe Hickey) for macho war correspondent Philip Rawlings (Kelly AuCoin). Alpha male Rawlings, who spends most of his time volunteering for the republican army against the General Franco-led rebels, kicks Preston out of his room (which happens to be next door to Bridges'). While bombs land frighteningly close to their shabby hotel, Bridges and Rawlings make passionate love.
From then on, Dorothy wants to get serious with Philip and wants him to get serious about his writing. Philip is clearly a stand-in for Hemingway, who was paid a whopping $1 a word back in 1937 but was more interested in fighting for Spanish Democracy. Dorothy is based on writer Martha Gelhorn, Hemingway's mistress and later his third wife. Their romance began during the Spanish Civil War at the frequently shelled, crumbling Hotel Florida (home to prostitutes as well as war correspondents).
Benjamin Glazer's poorly received 1940 adaptation of The Fifth Column, directed by Lee Strasberg, drastically altered the plot. In his version, Philip raped Dorothy. Apparently it was too racy for an educated woman to drop one man because she liked another better.
The Mint's artistic director, Jonathan Bank, has made a career of rediscovering forgotten plays like this one. He also serves as director, and he does his best to move the action along in the long, three-act play. Together with his fine 13-person cast, Bank captures the excitement, danger, and intrigue of wartime 1930s Madrid, when brave Americans and Europeans risked their lives trying to stop the spread of fascism. As for the title, the Spanish rebels claimed to have four columns advancing on Madrid as well as a fifth column of sympathizers within the city who would attack the republicans from the rear.
Besides providing a history lesson and a portrait of Hemingway as a tough-as-nails, lady-killer hero, The Fifth Column is an engaging wartime drama. AuCoin and Armbruster generate believable sparks, and Hickey, Nicole Shalhoub, Teresa Yenque, Ronald Guttman, and the rest of the cast lend solid support. Vicki R. Davis' set effectively conjures up various locations in war-torn Madrid, and sound designer Jane Shaw contributes nerve-rattling bombardments and gunshots.
No, The Fifth Column doesn't rank with Hemingway's great novels, but it does offer no-nonsense dialogue and colorful characters. The plotting is only okay, and cuts would help tighten the story. But overall the Mint has proven that Hemingway's 71-year-old play was worth dusting off and bringing to life on stage.