Languishing in obscurity since 1940, Ernest Hemingway’s only full-length play, The Fifth Column, has apparently not received a professional revival in the U.S. till the Mint Theater Company’s current production. Richard Burton starred in a 1960 TV version, and a Moscow troupe mounted it, but the piece has mostly gathered dust. What’s more, the 1940 New York version was reportedly doctored so severely by screenwriter Benjamin Glazer that it bears little resemblance to Hemingway’s original script.
The Mint’s mission to unearth forgotten works of note and give them competent mainstream productions makes it easy to get excited about their good taste and curatorial skill. They’ve helped restore the reputations of Dawn Powell and J.M. Barrie, and practically brought Harley Granville Barker back from the dead. But sometimes one would also like to be wowed by a performance or awed by a story. Hemingway’s legacy hardly needs reviving, but it’s interesting to rubberneck at this minor accident.
The Fifth Column is pretty uneven as a play, and even director Jonathan Bank’s clear-eyed treatment can’t remedy that. Papa says he wrote it in 1937 while stationed in Madrid’s Hotel Florida, under attack during the Spanish Civil War. Some writers get distracted by the hum of air-conditioning units; it’s hard to imagine intermittent bombs adding quality, though the drama does gain some complexity as it progresses.
Hemingway stand-in Phillip Rawlings, played by Kelly AuCoin with a shortage of charisma, is an American working undercover for the Republicans, fronting as a war correspondent. He steals Dorothy Bridges—a flighty war reporter, played by the Kidman-esque Heidi Armbruster—from her married lover. Rawlings, like many a wartime antihero, can’t disclose his top-secret mission to his girl, but he’s torn because he truly loves her. “Every night I ask her to marry me, and every morning I tell her I don’t mean it,” Rawlings explains to Anita, a Spanish comrade with whom he’s also taken up. The love affair with Bridges could be affecting his job: He accidentally causes the death of an ally and fails to capture an interloping member of the so-called fifth column of Franco sympathizers inside the city. We learn (again) that love and war don’t mix.
Things eventually turn around for Rawlings: He captures five Francoistas and delivers them to the Commisariado. He can’t, however, bring himself to watch the Republicans torture anyone. Once he’s through with this high-profile job, he wants to flee Madrid, since his cover is blown. So he breaks it off with Bridges by deliberately insulting her: “You’re useless. You’re a fool and you’re lazy.”
Hemingway’s women often seem smart in a superficial way—about things like clothes. Bridges, despite a patina of worldliness, lacks common sense. The average person (let alone woman) who has heard so many lies would certainly see through Rawlings’s caddish ruse. Papa never considers that, on average, women spend considerably more time handicapping their relationships than men—and what about that intuition thing?
Similarly aggravating is Hemingway’s tendency to see foreigners as funny-talking local color, a quirk made even more conspicuous onstage than in his novels. From this play, you’d think that Americans ran the Spanish Civil War. INTAR vet Teresa Yenque, as Petra the maid, and Nicole Shalhoub, as Anita, fight the dehumanizing tide with charm, but Carlos Lopez’s cartoony hotel manager, with a less-than-credible accent, exacerbates the problem. The Fifth Column ends on an acidic, evocative note suggesting a correlation between betrayal in love and physical torture during wartime. That it begins as a bedroom farce could explain why we probably won’t see much of this oddity in the next 68 years.