A 1930s world on the brink of war still resonates today in 'Idiot's Delight'

Richard Fleischman

Richard Fleischman

For Idiot’s Delight, Park Square Theatre’s subterranean Andy Boss Thrust Stage transforms into the cocktail lounge of the Hotel Monte Gabriele, perched high in the Italian Alps. The mountains are visible through a bank of upstage windows, and when the characters look out into the audience, they see an airfield that serves as a launching point for attacks on France.

Idiot's Delight

Park Square Theatre

Robert E. Sherwood’s 1936 play—his first of three to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama over a span of just five years—imagines the first hours of a fictional war that resembles, in broad outline, the actual Second World War that would erupt shortly thereafter. The tragic second act explores the fates of characters who spend the first act uneasily going about their business.

Girl Friday Productions stages only one production every two years, but artistic director Kirby Bennett makes it a big one. Idiot’s Delight corrals a cast of 19 to play the motley international group of men and women who find themselves sequestered at the Monte Gabriele when the drums of war sound.

The two characters who become central to the story (the program’s cover photo is a spoiler in this respect) are Irene (Stacia Rice) and Harry (John Middleton). Irene is a Russian of mysterious extraction who’s in cahoots with arms dealer Achille (David Coral). Harry is an impresario who’s touring the continent with an ebullient vocal trio (Bonni Allen, Karissa Lade, and a particularly sprightly Becca Hart).

Irene is a showcase role in the grand old style: unabashedly melodramatic, confidently sexy, ineffably sad, and thickly accented. Rice takes the stage as though she’s being poured onto it, inexorably commanding the house’s attention. As her foil, Middleton keeps Harry crisp and slightly shabby, channeling the offhand charisma of Clark Gable, who played the role onscreen in 1939.

Director Craig Johnson ably captures Sherwood’s horror at the world’s inability to stop a second globe-spanning conflict that would become even more destructive than the Great War itself, and there are lines that undeniably resonate today. (“It needs only one spark, set off anywhere by one egomaniac, to send it all up in one final, fatal explosion.”)

There’s a piano onstage, and it gets a welcome workout at the hands of music director Kevin Dutcher. The songs of Rodgers and Hart create a warm, poignant soundtrack for this star-crossed alpine retreat.

Scenic designer Michael Hoover handles the space well, even if his pastel tones evoke 1986 more than 1936. Cocktail tables that blur the transition from stage to seating are a nice touch. Visually, though, the real stunner of this show comes from costume designer Kathy Kohl, whose striking and varied designs draw us into a rich world of luxury and brutality.

Idiot’s Delight
Park Square Theatre
20 W. Seventh Place, St. Paul
651-291-7005; through July 23