You can hardly blame the acting company at Park Square Theatre for the fact that the handsomely designed production of “Idiot’s Delight” that opened last Friday in St. Paul is simplistic and naive.
Commendable performers John Middleton and Stacia Rice, who play an American entertainer and a mysterious Russian respectively, do beautiful work in the show with a big acting company where many of the players don’t seem to understand their lines (some of them delivered in Italian).
Nor is director Craig Johnson wholly at fault for the muddle that transpires in his three-quarter-round staging that starts out with the rhythm of comedy but ends as a tragedy with bombs exploding everywhere.
The original blame goes back to the Pulitzer Prize judges who awarded Robert E. Sherwood’s 1936 play about an impending outbreak of war the field’s top honor, helping to give it juice and undeserved longevity.
(The play, named for a Civil War-era cake as well as a card game, was turned into a 1939 film starring Clark Gable. A musical adaptation by Alan Jay Lerner and Charles Strouse called “Dance a Little Closer” did not fare as well. It closed on Broadway on opening night in 1983.)
Reviewing a 1986 revival of “Idiot’s Delight” that starred Stacy Keach, New York Times critic Frank Rich called the play a “clumsy” “theatrical antique.”
It hasn’t gotten better in the 30 years since.
“Idiot’s Delight” is all about symbolism. Set at a mountaintop resort where Italy, Switzerland, Austria and Bavaria meet, it features a cross-section of international characters as war is about to break out.
There’s Rice’s Russian princess and a shady Nazi arms manufacturer. There’s a honeymooning British couple, a German doctor who is researching a cure for cancer and Middleton’s smoothly cynical American entertainer with his trio of blonde dancers.
At Park Square, Michael Hoover has created some handsome scenery to represent the cocktail lounge where the action takes place. And costume designer Kathy Kohl has dressed the characters to conjure up elegance and fun.
But Johnson has not done much to rescue and clarify the thin script. And only two performers are worth the time. Middleton’s entertainer Harry is a character whose words arise from a place of cynicism. But the actor gives him both honor and honesty so that he sounds like a truth-teller. And Rice’s Russian Irene gives us enough mystery to keep us hanging on.
But most of the actors in the 17-member cast are just getting to know their lines. Perhaps they will get more polished as the run continues. Perhaps, also, the parallels between then and now will make the show resonate in a way that it did not on opening weekend.