For curiosity value, “The Fifth Column” is off the charts. That’s how genuinely interesting it is to see a staging of Ernest Hemingway’s only full-length play, previously produced only in a bowdlerized version mounted in 1940 by the Theater Guild. But while the diligent Mint Theater deserves kudos for unearthing this rare work , which romanticizes an American war correspondent’s participation in the Spanish Civil War, the company’s reverential treatment of the piece — leaving even the most egregious flaws unedited — unkindly reveals the great novelist’s limited skills as a playwright.
Frankly, the most interesting thing about this corny war drama is Hemingway’s personal account (which appears in the preface of the printed text) of how it came to be written, between 1937-38, while he was quartered at the Hotel Florida in Madrid as a correspondent covering the Spanish Civil War.
A year into the war, the place was packed with journalists from international dailies, major magazines and wire services. Among these daredevil reporters was Hem’s then-mistress and future wife, Martha Gellhorn, who filed battlefield copy for Colliers and was a legend in her own journalistic right. In the play, she is represented by the character Dorothy Bridges.
The Hotel Florida, Hem reports, was struck by more than 30 high-explosive shells during the year he was holed up there. “So if it is not a good play, perhaps that is what is the matter with it,” he wrote. “If it is a good play, perhaps those thirty-some shells helped write it.”
The Mint has not only expunged the Theater Guild’s dubious “improvements” and restored the play script to its original text, but has gone out of its way to position the play in historical context. There are after-show discussions, scholarly lectures on the Spanish Civil War, and plenty of books on the play, the war and related subjects for sale in the lobby. If you’re going to rescue a lost masterpiece, this is definitely the way to do it.
The trouble is “The Fifth Column” is anything but a masterpiece. True, the war feels real and the espionage plot makes a contentious political point about the military tactics of the International Brigades that rushed to defend the progressive Spanish government from Gen. Franco’s fascistic coup. But the characters run to type (daredevil journalists, heroic freedom fighters, beautiful but shallow blonde, noble peasants, stoic maid, brave tart, comic-relief hotel manager) and are largely played as such. And the blunt, repetitive, cinematically inspired dialogue runs from gets-the-job-done to makes-your-skin-crawl.
In visualizing the setting for his drama, which turns on counter-espionage agents attempting to identify and eliminate civilian Fifth Columnists secretly working for Franco, Hemingway appears to have been more influenced by the early movies of Howard Hawks and John Ford than by the stagecraft of, say, Eugene O’Neill.
Overly eager to oblige, helmer Jonathan Bank stages the action in quasi-realistic style, on detailed sets that paradoxically send up the broad performance styles.
As dashing Hemingwayesque lead Philip Rawlings, Kelly AuCoin makes a mighty effort to play against role type, keeping his voice low and his thoughts to himself. But it’s a losing battle. The charismatic hero is clearly meant to be a big, brave, ballsy guy, and the macho dialogue Hemingway saddles him with requires swagger — not denial.
Heidi Armbruster takes the opposite approach to the Gellhorn doll, playing Dorothy with brittle superficiality and a screechy voice so high-pitched it could trigger landmines.
Thesp is not to be blamed, though, for Hem’s manly condescension to the little lady. “Aren’t you a lady war correspondent or something?” Philip snaps at Dorothy when she spies a dead body on the premises. “Get out of here and go write an article.” (Did Gellhorn ever actually read this thing, one wonders?)
A couple of smaller parts are nicely underplayed. And given the improbably romantic role that falls to Ronald Guttman — Max, the war-weary, battle-scarred agent of countless undercover operations — the veteran thesp delivers a taut perf that vibrates with tension.