HERE ARE several good reasons for reviving "Idiot's Delight," Robert E. Sherwood's 1936 Pulitzer-winning anti- war comedy, which has been remounted with gleaming surfaces -- but lackluster performances -- by the American National Theater.
Firstly, the production marks the 50th anniversary of both the play (which opened at the National Theater in 1936) and the American National Theater and Academy. Next, the play would seem to speak -- in a world capital -- to a world in grave danger of destruction. And its "Grand Hotel"-style gathering of characters gives director Peter Sellars a forum for his cross-section casting and high-minded conceits.
Unfortunately, Sherwood's hotel is more bland than Grand, and for reasons that have as much to do with his sentimental, simplistic play as with Sellars' staging, "Idiot's Delight" defies this attempt at resuscitation.
Sherwood tosses a multinational salad in an isolated hotel atop the Italian Alps. As the rumor of WWII's outbreak solidifies, each character is consumed by nationalistic fervor and the world's squabbles are enacted in microcosm -- with friction among an energetic, politically naive American vaudeville troupe; a German doctor working on a cancer cure; a ranting French pacifist; two cavalier British honeymooners; a sinister, detached munitions merchant who may have lit the fuse of war, and his mysterious, vodka-swilling mistress.
Sherwood then sermonizes: There are no such things as "countries"; national boundaries are easily and constantly erased and redrawn. And despite the antipathies of their homelands, these people have shared bonds; the only things really harmed by war are the decent "little people" who make up nations.
George Tsypin's set is impressive but domineering: a swank, skylit lobby constructed of Mylar, furnished with contemporary chrome- and-leather Italian furniture and a sleek black lacquer bar dominated by a plexiglass Nazi eagle and a towering mountain range.
As the American archetype, brash but bighearted Harry Van, Stacy Keach is the only actor who seems big enough for this set, and gets the evening's biggest laugh when he says, "Have you taken cocaine? I have -- during a stage in my career when luck was bad and confusion prevailed." As Irene, the White Russian, JoBeth Williams makes several glamorous entrances in a white sheath and stole or a slinky scarlet gown. But her performance suffocates under her vampy "vee-vant-vodka" accent.
Sellars' directorial style is less ostentatiously flamboyant than usual, and he underlines the rhetoric at the expense of the comic side, giving "Idiot's Delight" a scolding earnestness. There is some attempt made to capture the madcap flavor of '30s movies, with the actors running and coming to skidding halts, but the production seems dispirited and didactic overall.
IDIOT'S DELIGHT -- At the Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater through March 22.