The Fifth Column
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
March 20, 2008
The Fifth Column, now at the Mint Theater Company, is worth a look if only for sheer curiosity value: this play is the only one that Ernest Hemingway ever wrote, and the Mint is presenting it as he wrote it (as opposed to the expurgated adaptation by Benjamin Glazer that the Theatre Guild mounted in 1940). Directed by Jonathan Bank, this production shows us Hemingway's work, warts and all. Fans of the author and students of American literature in general will want to have a look at it.
The first act of The Fifth Column suggests that we're going to be watching a romantic suspense thriller. We're in a Madrid hotel in 1937, at the height of the Spanish Civil War. Franco's rebels are advancing on the city, and the Republicans (the legitimately elected government) are being battered, particularly by the fascists within Madrid (the so-called "fifth column") who are committing acts of terrorism against the populace. At this hotel are American journalist Dorothy Bridges, a gorgeous and sophisticated icy blonde who is ostensibly covering the war but doesn't seem to grasp its significance or gravity, and Philip Rawlings, a rugged, handsome, mysterious American playboy. The two make love for the first time during a bombardment on the city. But Rawlings is clearly hiding something important about what he's doing here in Madrid, and when a dead soldier is found the next morning in his hotel room, we begin to understand just how deeply involved he is in the Republican cause.
I'm not going to reveal too many more details about the story, but I will tell you that in Acts II and III, despite the arrival of a German patriot named Max who has escaped the Nazis to serve with Rawlings in the fight against the Spanish fascists, the main focus of The Fifth Column is decidedly on the romance. What it feels like, quickly, is a prototype for Casablanca (and I wondered whether its tepid reception in 1940 was the result of it being ahead of its time, albeit just two years: does a country weary of and/or unprepared for war want to see a story like this?)
Rawlings is very much the Hemingway hero you'd expect—hard-drinking, irresistible to women, rootless but ultimately noble—and Max, who wears an ugly facial scar as a badge of honor, is his asexual, infinitely brave mentor. Kelly AuCoin and Ronald Guttman are very good as Rawlings and Max, with AuCoin demonstrating significant charisma as the (anti?-)hero and Guttman humanizing Max invaluably.
The only other admirable character in the play is Petra, the hotel maid, who is unfailingly wise, maternal, and heroic no matter the circumstance. Teresa Yenque portrays her with great humanity, helping remind us that despite Hemingway's primary concern with the Bridges-Rawlings love story, an important and tragic struggle is occurring at the perimeters of the play, a struggle that makes Rawlings's and Max's actions genuinely worthy.
Bridges, though, is very problematic. She's presented as a selfish, self-indulgent rich-bitch poseur, so much so that it's difficult to understand why Rawlings would fall in love with her (as opposed to why he'd sleep with her). Because nothing in Heidi Armbruster's performance takes us beneath the plastic surface of this woman, I was never convinced that Bridges and Rawlings are soulmates.
The other characters in the piece are caricatures: Rawlings's Spanish mistress is the archetypal whore-with-a-heart-of-gold (beautifully played by Nicole Shalhoub), the hotel manager is a grasping buffoon, and the Spanish commandant is bull-headed and corrupt. Nevertheless, The Fifth Column is genuinely compelling and enormously watchable. And the Mint's production values—including an array of evocative costumes by Clint Ramos and a highly effective set by Vicki R. Davis—are top-notch and serve the drama nicely.
I'm not sure that the national mood in 2008 is any more in tune with Hemingway's idealized notion of valorous warfare than it was pre-World War II. But the Mint's mission to explore the forgotten corners of our literary and dramatic recent past is well-served with this square-shouldered revival of the only play in the Hemingway canon.