March 28, 2008

As the Mint’s new production of “The Fifth Column” proves, Ernest Hemingway was an average dramatist at best. Nonetheless, Jonathan Bank’s staging of Hemingway’s Spanish Civil War espionage drama — the first ever to use the author’s original 1937 text — is fascinating for other reasons.

For fans of Hemingway’s fiction, it’s mesmerizing to watch him struggle to give the play’s sketchy characters the heft they possess in his novels. (They wind up somewhere in the zone of a 1940s gumshoe movie: stylish talkers with hard shells.) On a biographical level, it’s provocative to watch the playwright turn the Hemingway surrogate, an American war correspondent, into an anguished secret agent.

Mostly, though, the quality that allows “The Fifth Column” to transcend its ample flaws is the same quality Hemingway brought to novels such as “For Whom the Bell Tolls” and “A Farewell to Arms”: an eye for the teeming humanity, and inhumanity, of war. As the play opens in a bombedout but still standing corner of Madrid’s Hotel Florida, Hemingway starts elucidating the countless small relationships that bind the visiting journalists to the locals. There is a hotel manager (Carlos Lopez) who ends every conversation with his well-provisioned foreign guests by begging for “extra” food; a chambermaid (Maria Parra) who dispenses breakfast and advice on matters of the heart, and a local prostitute (Nicole Shalhoub) who is equal parts smart, jaded, and discreet.

Together, these bit players create a portrait of the anti-Franco, anti-Fascist working class, known as the Republicans, that is trying to hold Madrid. (The “fifth column” of the title refers to the pro-Franco Fascists who have snuck into Madrid and are working behind enemy lines.) And because the American journalists who are holed up in the Hotel Florida share food and duck bombs with these Republicans, they are increasingly bound to their cause.

Of course, some Americans are more sympathetic than others. At one end of the spectrum is Philip Rawlings (Kelly AuCoin), the aforementioned Hemingway surrogate whose automatic affinity for the Republic leads him into the murky, ugly world of the secret agent. At the other is the pampered and naïve Dorothy Bridges (Heidi Armbruster), a Vassar graduate and a platinum blonde, a war correspondent who scarcely leaves the hotel. For a long while, she barely notices the toll the war is taking on the people around her. (When the hotel electrician gets shot by a sniper just for wearing his worker’s uniform, she is briefly outraged, then asks how soon the hotel can find a new electrician.)

World-weary Philip takes comfort in being around Dorothy, whose cocoon of privilege reminds him of the domestic tranquility he left behind long ago. (There are larger currents at work here — the gender divide that existed in America during two World Wars, when men saw combat and women stayed home on untrammeled soil.) Dorothy is blithely ignorant — she delights in buying herself a fur coat on the cheap, untroubled by the appearance of fiddling while Rome burns — but to Philip, that ignorance is ultimately the stronger part of her appeal. Dorothy reminds him of a world in which people can afford to be that innocent, that unthinking.

Philip, meanwhile, is tortured by his thoughts. He believes in his mission — handing over high-placed spies to the Republicans — but can’t stomach the torture and murder that follow his captures. He works with a seasoned operative called Max (Ronald Guttman, who lends gravitas to the derring-do), whose clear-headed, decisive actions make Philip look like an amateur in comparison.

Max is the secret agent Philip would like to be, but he’s unable to endure the moral tension of an impure battle — the fact that good men must sometimes be punished for innocent mistakes, or that bad men have to be tortured. Besides, he’s too susceptible the siren song of his Vassar grad. Mr. Bank casts Philip as a man in his 40s, balding and not especially macho. It’s a choice that cuts against both the Hemingway legend and the secret agent stereotype: The Hemingway character looks — and talks — more like a writer than a bullfighter. Perhaps for that reason, Philip never quite persuades as a spy — he feels more like a writer playing at being a spy.

Likewise, despite Mr. Bank’s efforts to streamline its staging, “The Fifth Column” feels more like a movie or a novel playing at being a play. It strains against the confines of the stage. Through a series of scenery changes and major onstage events (bombings, captures) you can feel its author yearning for a wider canvas.

As a drama, “The Fifth Column” is just barely seaworthy. Yet it remains a potent document of the late 1930s, a time when concerned individuals around the world bucked their own nations to fight against fascism with the International Brigades. Composed in the same bomb-rattled hotel room in which it transpires, “The Fifth Column” is a remarkable contemporaneous account, a trenchant observer’s record of the large and small moments that make up a war.