March 28, 2008

Ernest Hemingway: playwright? Jonathan Bank’s Mint Theater Company, which makes major theater from little-known facts, has excavated “The Fifth Column” for what’s probably its world premiere. (The Theater Guild produced a bastardized adaptation in 1940, but Hemingway refused to see it.)

The master tough-guy storyteller wrote this, his only full-length play, in 1937, while holed up in a Madrid hotel as a war correspondent during the Spanish Civil War. Like “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” his 1940 novel three years later, the play is an adventure story about an American fighting against Franco’s fascists and struggling with duty and personal happiness.

“Fifth Column” plays as if it would have been better as a sweeping rough-and-tumble romantic movie. On the Mint’s tiny (but always surprisingly mighty) stage, more than a dozen actors roll out almost three hours of heroics and flawed humanity with remarkable conviction and sense of style.

Kelly AuCoin has a fine-edged intelligence as Philip Rawlings, who pretends to be an alcoholic playboy while working in counterespionage for the Communist idealists. Heidi Armbruster brings a shimmering glamour-girl confidence as the American journalist from Vassar – a character based on Martha Gellhorn, who became Hemingway’s third wife.

The woman wears clothes beautifully (expert costumes by Clint Ramos), but somehow manages to file stories by doing little more than preen and wait for men in her room in the bombed-out hotel. Philip actually lifts her in his arms and carries her to bed. Thanks to director Bank, we don’t even think of laughing.