April 26, 2008

"The Fifth Column" Isn't Sturdy Enough

The Mint Theater Company prides itself on presenting unknown plays by very well known writers. Over the years, it has presented, with varying degrees of success, plays by D. H. Lawrence, A.A. Milne, Dawn Powell, Thomas Wolfe, Leo Tolstoy and, most recently, Ernest Hemingway. I’d never seen a Mint production (although last fall’s world premiere of a “new” Tolstoy work was tempting) and since I fell under the Hemingway mystique while reading Carlos Bakers’ still-unrivaled 1969 biography, I decided to see the Mint’s production of The Fifth Column, the only play Hemingway every wrote and something of a companion piece to his classic novel “For Whom the Bell Tolls.”

Hemingway wrote The Fifth Column in 1937, while in Madrid covering the Spanish Civil War. The play centers around two American journalists—clearly modeled on Hemingway and his soon-to-be wife Martha Gellhorn—who are covering that conflict and getting more involved in it than they should. Hemingway shopped the play around for a while until the Theater Guild finally agreed to produce it in 1940 but, apparently believing him to be a better novelist than playwright, the Guild brought in Hollywood screenwriter Benjamin Glazer to doctor the script.

The Glazer version opened on March 6, 1940, the same year that “For Whom the Bell Tolls” hit the bestsellers’ list and three years before the Gary Cooper-Ingrid Begman film adaptation of the novel hit the big screen. The play was directed by Lee Strasberg and starred Franchot Tone as the Hemingway stand-in Philip Rawlings. (Lee J. Cobb, who nine years later would create the role of Willy Loman in Death of A Salesman, had a supporting role as an underground fighter who enlists Rawlings’ help.) The critics liked it. “Although The Fifth Column is an uneven play that never recovers in the second act the grim candor of the beginning, it manages to make a statement that is always impressive and sometimes poignant or shattering,” wrote Brooks Atkinson, who was so impressed that he wrote a longer analysis 10 days later (click here to read it).

Still, the show played just 87 performances and a national tour fell apart when Tone bought out his contract. The play was never produced again until the Mint’s artistic director Jonathan Bank decided to put it on. Bank, who also directs this production, has gone back to Hemingway’s original three-act script, which gives the Mint bragging rights to a world premiere but made me wonder what the shorter version Atkinson championed might have been like since the show my buddy Bill and I saw simply isn’t very good.

The cast of 13, lead by Kelly AuCoin as Rawlings, Heidi Armbruster as his paramour Dorothy Bridges and Ronald Gutterman as the freedom fighter Max, is fine. Although Jeff Nellis’ lighting and Jane Shaw’s sound design are actually better. But probably the best part for me was the exhibit in the lobby that recounts the show’s history, complete with photos of and even letters by Hemingway and Gellhorn. You can see it, and the play too, through May 18.

In the meantime,
I'm wondering what Gellhorn, an outstanding war correspondent in her own right, thought of his portrait of her. Earlier this year, she got her own play when another small company, the Keen Company, presented The Maddening Truth. Its playwright David Hay doesn't have a famous name but I think I might have enjoyed that one more.

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