Up to now, Peter Sellars' productions for the American National Theater have provoked violently partisan reactions. To some, he reinvents the classics. To others, he manhandles them. He is innovative or he is self-indulgent. The boy genius or the boy charlatan. If nothing else, in his short tenure at the Kennedy Center he has fomented controversy.
Now, just when the arguments are getting hot, along comes Sellars' 50th-anniversary revival of "Idiot's Delight," about which it is difficult to have any strong feelings whatsoever. The production, which opened a five-week run Saturday night in the Eisenhower Theater, is certainly the most straightforward endeavor to come out of ANT. While that may momentarily quiet those who charge that Sellars leaves messy fingerprints on every play he touches, I suspect even they will find this undertaking fairly banal.
Its surest asset is a slick-talking, glad-handing performance by Stacy Keach, as Harry Van, a former carnival shill and two-bit song-and-dance man, touring Europe with a quartet of doxies billed as Les Blondes. On the eve of World War II, Van and les gals find themselves momentarily stranded in an Italian Alpine resort, which as designed by George Tsypin is likely to make you sit up and blink twice. True, it's not quite the second-rate hostelry the script calls for, but it's impressive. With its sleek wall of marbleized mylar, rising at an angle almost to the full height of the Eisenhower proscenium, and a bar backed by an implacably imperial eagle, it seems to be actively canvassing for the Nazi trade.
Keach's scratchy charm and the monumental set go only so far, however. Eventually, this "Idiot's Delight" falls prey to a creeping blandness. The impression is disfelled only at the end, when the bombs start bursting in air and Sellars has several of his cast members scramble up that perilous wall, like spiders, in order to get the first glimpse of the impending holocaust.
Robert Sherwood's script, a Pulitzer Prize winner in 1936, has not suffered the encroachments of time particularly gracefully. The passion with which it denounces the world's indifference to fascism is fervidly self-conscious, and its assertion that war is folly seems self-evident, to say the least. Van's assertion that "no matter how much the meek may be bulldozed and gypped, they will eventually inherit the earth" may well have come across the footlights as an admirable expression of faith in 1936. Today, it's a bit of a clinker.
Still, I'm not sure there isn't some kick in the old play yet. Although Sherwood was alerting audiences to the imminence of world destruction, he was savvy enough to couch his warnings in a popular entertainment. "Idiot's Delight" interweaves the stories of a dozen or so guests, marooned at the Hotel Monte Gabriele, all of whom are eager to get over the Swiss border and on with their lives. Among others, there's the German scientist, who believes he is on the verge of finding a cure for cancer; a French communist, aflame with revolutionary principles; a pair of British newlyweds; an international munitions magnate; and his enigmatic Russian mistress, who changes her biography with every swill of vodka.
Slowly, they will all be sucked into the war machine that is grinding up just beyond the snowcapped horizon. Van, however, has a more immediate concern. He is increasingly certain that the mysterious Russian (JoBeth Williams) is really the vaudeville performer he once met and blissfully bedded in Omaha. Will she own up to their tryst? Will they get together again? Will they get off the mountaintop before the hotel is blasted to smithereens?
This may be hokum, but it's not without a measure of good, old-fashioned suspense, some good, old-fashioned laughs and a dollop of good, old-fashioned romance. The production, however, is not particularly adept at exploiting those moments that might attenuate the painful earnestness of Sherwood's message. The vintage flavor -- of which there is not an abundance -- is provided mainly by Kurt Wilhelm, who has designed the costumes with a nod to Hollywood in the 1930s, and by John Malachi, who knocks off some of the era's pop tunes at the grand piano. In Act 2 Van and his cuties entertain the guests with their nightclub routine, but as Baayork Lee has choreographed it, the tawdry number is defiantly unamusing.
For every sharply etched performance, there is, alas, one of more pedestrian dimensions to cancel it out. Under the confident swagger of the small-time operator, Keach has an unpretentious decency that is appealing. He's right at home in Van's loud wardrobe, and he makes the character's garishness second nature, even tickling the ivories with casual skill. Williams, decked out in blond Ginger Rogers wigs, isn't exactly a lady of glamorous seduction, though. She's too earthbound, too stolidly American, to make the character's tantalizing flutters completely believable. Sparks cannot be said to fly between her and Keach.
Werner Klemperer casts an effective chill as the amoral munitions magnate, but Anne Beresford Clarke and Sam Robards play the proper British honeymooners with predictable twitiness. Barbara Sharma, the best and brassiest of the tarnished blonds, doesn't get much help from her three companions in gum-cracking sleaze. While Richard Woods (the scientist), Jan Triska (an Italian captain), Merwin Goldsmith (the hotel proprietor) and Paul Stolarsky (a hapless waiter) play convincingly to type, Tim Choate's overwrought depiction of the French firebrand is only slightly less embarrassing than his gurgling accent.
And what is the point of having Brian McCue tear around the premises in bad drag, sometimes as a harried maid, other times as a starchy Italian wife, whose husband turns out to be a mannequin in a wheelchair? His shenanigans do not occasion hilarity so much as mild, shoulder-shrugging dismay. "Idiot's Delight" isn't inept, mind you. It just isn't, well, all that ept.
Consider it a mark of the production that a mischievous coincidence provokes the biggest laughs of the evening. Striking up a conversation with the French revolutionary, Van asks casually, "Have you ever taken cocaine?" Keach, who was busted by English authorities for possession of cocaine in 1984, plays the moment with good-natured aplomb. As a result, he gets an even bigger reaction when he confesses, "I have -- during a stage in my career when luck was bad and confusion prevailed."
Nothing else in "Idiot's Delight" is half so relevant.
Idiot's Delight, by Robert Sherwood. Directed by Peter Sellars. Sets, George Tsypin; costumes, Kurt Wilhelm; lighting, James F. Ingalls; sound, Bruce Odland; choreography, Baayok Lee. With Stacy Keach, JoBeth Williams, Werner Klemperer, Barbara Sharma, Tom Choate, Anne Beresford Clarke, Marc Epstein, Merwin Goldsmith, Sam Robards, Paul Stolarsky, Jan Triska, Richard Woods, Brian McCue. At the Eisenhower Theater through March 22.