IDIOT'S DELIGHT - At the Arena through June 24.
In 1936, Robert Sherwood won the Pulitzer Prize for "Idiot's Delight," in which he predicted that Italy would start World War II by attacking France.
It also predicted that decent people on either side would quickly drop their deepest moral convictions to participate, while it showed that the only sensible reaction, in a world where God plays games of chance, is to drink as much champagne as possible until the bombs fall.
The historical blooper doesn't matter, in the current production at Arena Stage, because the psychological statements seem more valid than ever. We admire the gallantry of accepting fate stylishly. We know how fragile idealism can be. We would probably even go further, and say that the hope of wiping out the ills of humanity was naive, anyway.
At this distance from that war, a German scientist who abandons trying to cure cancer to practice germ warfare seems not much different from a Communist who abandons international brotherhood when the bombing of Paris turns him back into a fiercely partisan Frenchman.
This perspective would make the play an interesting choice, even if the theater weren't in the middle of reviving everything from the '20s and '30s, good or bad. It's something, these days, to find a snazzy Art Deco set and slinky actresses with funny fur pieces appearing in a play which also has an idea in it.
And yet there are serious problems with this production. On the last preview night, no decision seemed to have yet been made on how to deal with some creaky mechanics of the play - whether to pass them off quietly or overplay them for camp laughs.
The theatrical cliche of having a group of unrelated international types stranded together in a hotel was emphasized by streams of people constantly running through, labbling loudly in exaggerated accents. The effect was of a hysterical international circus troupe, consisting of a Hungarian pretending to be a Russian, a Hungarian masquerading as a Frenchman, a Hungarian passing himself off as a German, a Hungarian couple claiming to be English, and a troupe of Hungarian acrobats billing themselves as Italians.
Robert Prosky, in the part of an American everyman, the honest huckster, which was originally played by Alfred Lunt, started with the advantage of sounding sensible just because he could talk straight. But Halo Wines, in the Lynn Fontanne role, put so much impostering into being an imposter as to make one wonder why he was interested in her when he already had in his charge a bevy of chorus girls in the same shade of blonde and the same degree of subtlety.
The awkwardness of having humanity's enemy personified by one munitions tycoon was properly downplayed by John Wylie's acting as little unctuous as the part permitted, but Stanley Anderson's spluttering Frenchman suggested that the Italians had a point about his being an expendable nuisance.
But it's not individual adjustments that are needed here, so much as a cohesive tone in which the point of the play, including its intended bits of comedy, are allowed to come through. CAPTION: Picture, ROBERT PROSKY AND HALO WINES IN "IDIOT'S DELIGHT," AT THE ARENA THROUGH JUNE 24.