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A CurtainUp Review
The Fifth Column

They had four columns advancing on Madrid and a Fifth Column of sympathers inside the city to attack the defenders from the rear.—Ernest Hemingway on the title of his play about a counter-espionage agent working for the Republic during the Spanish Civil War. His preface to the play explained that while the four columns advancing on Madrid shot their prisoners, when members of the Fifth Column were captured they were also shot.
The Fifth Column
Heidi Ambruster and Kelly AuCoin in The Fifth Column
(Photo: Richard Termine)
Jonathan Bank has once again given his company's ever growing audience of devoted Mintnicks a thoughtfully staged production of a neglected play. It's hard to believe that anything written by the Nobel and Pulitzer Prize winning Ernest Hemingway, one of the last century's most admired and style setting authors could fall into this category of plays either never produced or produced properly. But that's exactly what happened to The Fifth Column, the only one of his two plays to ever move from page to stage. Written by Hemingway in 1937 while he was covering the Spanish Civil War in Madrid for the North American Newspaper Alliance, it did make it to Broadway under the auspices of the Theatre Guild, but in a short-lived, heavily revised version by Benjamin Glazer that Hemingway never saw.

Hemingway's famously clipped dialogue was actually well suited to playwriting which, according to comments attributed to him, came more easily to him than the short stories and novels that made him famous. Perhaps if he had continued writing plays he would have fine tuned his skills. That said, the Mint's getting hold of the original playscript and producing it exactly as written is a fascinating chance to see Hemingway's signature macho males, adventurous stories and conflicted relationships with women in a different for him genre.

The Fifth Column is a clear forerunner to For Whom the Bell Tolls, Hemingway's super successful novel about the Spanish conflict that was written three years later and became an even more successful movie with Ingrid Bergman and Gary Cooper. But while Cooper's Robert Jordan comes to mind, the central character and the author's stand-in, counter-espionage agent Philip Rawlings posing as a dashing and somewhat frivolous journalist, is more reminiscent of Humphrey Bogart's Rick Blaine in the oldie but forever goodie Casablanca which was also set in a hotel teeming with intrigue. Since Casablanca didn't come out until 1944 Hemingway wasn't copying that flick (which was based on another potential Mint resuscitation— Everybody Comes to Rick's which its authors sold to Warner Brothers for $20,000 because nobody would produce it). The fact that The Fifth Column is set in a hotel teeming with intrigue adds to the sense of watching Hemingway's Spanish war version of Casablanca to the point where you expect a piano to be rolled out with Hoagy Carmichael playing "You Must Remember This."

In a talkback after the March 22nd press matinee I attended, Professor Noel Valis astutely likened the Philip Rawlings character to the dashing Scarlet Pimpernel. The only trouble with this theory is of course that Rawlings, unlike the Pimpernel, is an anti-hero.

The killings and heavy-handed interrogation methods by those who were like Rawlings fighting the good fight, were as bad as those of the enemy. He hates and is worn out by this aspect of his work, but he countenances it. While this makes him interesting, it also makes him too conflicted to make a more satisfyingly conclusive ending as in Casablanca and Pimpernel possible. Fortunately Kelly AuCoin plays Rawlings with just the right sort of Hemingway-esque war weary, cynical yet romantic macho. Ronald Guttman is also excellent as his sidekick whose scarred face signal unspeakable tortures he has experienced for the cause. Nicole Shaloub is appealingly fiery as Anita, a Spanish woman who is fond of Rawlings, not to mention the scarce hot water available in his hotel room.

Naturally, this being a step back into a 1930s-40s film staged live, Hemingway was not about to omit a romance. Mr. Bank has nabbed the lovely Heidi Armbruster to play Dorothy Bridges, a glamorous Vassar girl turned journalist and holed up in the same hotel with Rawlings. Bridges is modeled on Martha Gellhorn, Hemingway's real life mistress during this period and eventually his third wife. But Gellhorn was a smart, successful and highly ambitious journalist (as detailed in a recent play about her, The Maddening Truth). Unfortunately, as this character is written and Armbruster is directed to play her, she comes off to fit Rawlings' comments about her being a rather typical, innocuous self-absorbed type of college educated woman, instead of at least hinting more strongly at her being seriously intelligent -- in short, like Rawlings she is masquerading her real self.

Some of the dialogue between Armbruster and AuCoin has a wonderful Hemingway flavor with all the darlings feeling like an added dash of Noel Coward. But Armbruster is encouraged to gaze admiringly at herself a few too many times and a bit of business about her taking advantage of the war to buy a fox fur coat is played up instead of down. While Bank was clearly bent on not diddling with Hemingway's text, this is simply not a flawless enough play to do without some diddling. At best, the direction should have focused more on bringing out the subtleties in the relationship with unspoken actions. Rawling at one point practically tells Bridges that he's not as frivolously out on the town as he pretends, but there isn't a sign of either her awareness or deliberately self-protective unawarenes.

Despite the shortcomings of the script that Hemingway should probably have tried to address himself, the Mint production gives us a rare view of a great writer's early work even as it recreates the aura of an old movie thriller with a more than generously sized cast for a theater of this size.

It's is an entertaining glimpse into by-gone era. Though there's no " You Must Remember This" the authentic sound effects and lovely incidental music (bravo, Jane Shaw!) make up for Hoagy Carmichael's being a no show.

Written by Ernest Hemingway
Directed by Jonathan Bank
Cast: James Andreassi (Antonio), Heidi Armbruster (Dorothy Bridges), Kelly AuCoin (Philip Rawlings), Ryan Duncan (Electrician, Killer, Waiter, Civilian), Ronald Guttman (Max), John Hayden (International Brigade Soldier, Aide), Joe Hickey (General), Carlos Lopez (Manager), Ned Noyes (International Brigade Soldier, Sentry), Maria Parra (Girl, Maid), Joe Rayome (Wilkinson, Signaller), Nicole Shalhoub (Anita) and Teresa Yenque (Petra).
Set design by Vicki R. Davis
Costume design by Clint Ramos
Lighting design by Jeff Nellis
Sound design by Jane Shaw
Hair and Makeup: Erin Kennedy Lunsford
Dramaturgy: Juan Salas
Dialect Coach: Amy Stoller
Mint Theater, Third Floor of 311 West 43rd Street,
From 2/26/08; opening 3/27/08; closing 5/18/08.
Running Time 2 hours and 45 minutes, with 2 intermissions
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at March 22 press preview

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