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Idiot's Delight

Christopher Isherwood's Berlin Stories, life was a cabaret with hints of doom lurking in the wings, and in a celebrated novel by Katharine Anne Porter, a ship of fools sailed toward an apocalyptic date with disaster. There's something similar afoot in Robert E. Sherwood's 1936 Pulitzer-winning play, which preceded the aforementioned works. This highly compelling play foreshadowed the outbreak of World War II with uncanny insight. It initially recalls those political film farces from Billy Wilder (One, Two, Three) or Ernst Lubitsch (To Be or Not To Be), with broadly etched characters and an erudite flair; it then edges toward darker dramatic terrain. Though director Anthony Caldarella's resurrection of this classic is imperfect, it's a bracingly intelligent treatment of provocative material. Sherwood's antiwar parable sometimes flirts with pontification, yet it's a literate and profound piece overall. His portrait of the political self-interests, misplaced idealism, and sheer craziness that lead to catastrophic global conflict resonates strongly. Orchestrating the large ensemble cast through diverse characterizations, Caldarella creates a sophisticated continental milieu. He's aided in evoking the feel of a 1930s Italian Alps villa by Kis Knekt's striking cocktail-lounge set, Jeremy Pivnick's splendid lighting, Shon LeBlanc's chic costumes, and Drew Dalzell's disturbingly authentic sound effects. As the story begins, travelers check into the lodge while awaiting the reopening of the Swiss border so they can escape from Italy. They're aware of the possibility of air raids, but not quite ready to fathom that thought. The primary story is that of a slick, over-the-hill American song-and-dance man (Henry Olek), who's traveling with a bevy of blonde showgirls, and his budding romance with the mysterious Irene (Susan Priver), the mistress of a callous munitions manufacturer (Andrew Prine). She's pretending to be a Russian aristocrat. Other characters include a newlywed British couple (Darren Keefe and Polly Cusumano), a fiery revolutionary (the superb Mark Adair-Rios), a no-nonsense Italian Army captain (Vito D'Ambrosio), a cancer-research scientist (the marvelous Tom Lillard), and the eccentric villa employees and law-enforcement officers. Olek and Priver capture the wit and irony of their dialogue, fleshing out their colorful roles with brio and anchoring the increasingly tense proceedings. Prine is a suitably ominous presence, lurking in the background like the Emcee in Cabaret. Supporting roles are unevenly realized although Lawrence Novikoff stands out amusingly as a bungling servant reminiscent of a Blake Edwards character. A few performances are underplayed or inadequately projected and enunciated. The pace lags at times; Caldarella needs to imbue more variety into the lengthy scenes and speeches. Yet there are laughs and chills aplenty in this stylish rendition of a very difficult piece. Amid the horrific world news headlines of the past two years, it's downright hair-raisin

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