Sheila Schwartz’s Spy Garbo could have been the most action-packed reunion ever—a meeting of long-lost frenemies to rival Romy and Michelle’s. Rather than high school clique-mates, Schwartz convenes some of World War II’s most infamous political backstabbers: Francisco Franco, Kim Philby (a Soviet double agent who infiltrated British intelligence) and Wilhelm Canaris (an organizer of the failed plot to assassinate Hitler).
It’d be hard to find three figures with more exciting secrets to reveal. So why does Spy Garbo, directed by Kevin Cunningham, have the dramatic quotient of a walking, talking Wikipedia entry?
Franco, Philby, and Canaris (played by Steven Rattazzi, Chad Hoeppner, and Steven Hauck) congregate in a kind of Powerpoint purgatory, pacing among screens that display vintage headlines and World War II newsreel footage. The three take turns relating tales of wartime subterfuge, jockeying for the historical spotlight—which is sometimes a literal beam that capriciously shuts off while Franco’s trying to talk. They reminisce wistfully about the titular Spy Garbo, a Spanish operative whose double-crossing exploits linked the three wheeler-dealers.
But the mysterious Spy Garbo never materializes onstage, and neither does much theatrical urgency. Nothing seems to be at stake in the trio’s autobiographical diatribes, and despite protestations to the contrary, they’re hardly characters that history’s forgotten. Spy Garbo, on the other hand, is already fading from my mind.