The word “idiot” was originally used in ancient Greece to describe a person unconcerned with public affairs like politics, but dedicated to following private pursuits. The setting of Robert E. Sherwood’s 1936 romantic comedy Idiot’s Delight, a failing luxury hotel in the Italian Alps called the Hotel Monte Gabriele, initially seems to be full of idiots: newlyweds on their honeymoon, a group of burlesque singers and their manager, a blissfully genial waiter, and a couple of ornery managers sour over the lack of business. And when a spark flies between a beautiful and mysterious Russian and a smooth-talking American showbusinessman, while the other guests dance, drink, eat, and sing, there’s another piece of juicy plot that can be used to distract themselves, and the audience, from the war that’s literally raging outside the hotel windows.
The hotel is situated directly above an air field currently being used by the Italian air force, and throughout the course of the play, the early stages of a world war begin to unfold literally at their doorstep. And when a young and passionate French socialist brings the world’s political issues inside the hotel walls, the characters are idiots no more. But, as the title suggests, the delight must go on.
Sherwood’s Idiot’s Delight not only kicks off Soulpepper Theatre’s 2014 season, but also leads what artistic director Albert Schultz calls “a five-year exploration of the dramatic impact of the First and the Second World Wars.” And although this play was written three years before World Ward Two was declared, it clearly reflects the tensions that would lead to the conflict’s outbreak.
The history of the play, along with Sherwood’s prolific career (he won four Pulitzer prizes), makes this a no-brainer choice for Soulpepper: it’s got enough wit, romance, humour, and drama to keep anyone happy. And the ever-reliable Soulpepper company, with director Schultz at the helm, pulls it off with a few exceptional performances. Evan Buliung is beautifully simple, or simply beautiful, as Dumpsty, an utterly affable hotel waiter caught between nationalities after the Italian/Austrian border changed. Diego Matamoros reveals the venomousness of his arms dealer Achille Weber gradually, and Raquel Duffy and Dan Chameroy carry the show as the aforementioned lovers, Irene and Harry—and it doesn’t hurt to be surrounded by Harry’s charming fivesome of singing dames, which features pipes like Steffi Didomenicantonio’s and Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster’s.
However, the story’s more serious tones don’t pop quite as well as the jovial ones do—Chameroy and Duffy can pull off charming and seductive in their sleep, but come off as more stiff when the conversation turns to political matters. And Gregory Prest does his best as the fervid French socialist Quillery, but passion always seems to translate into speed and volume.
But these are relatively small qualms to have with an otherwise pleasant, if predictable production of a play that itself managed to anticipate the world’s descent into war.