BWW Reviews: Soulpepper Enchants With Idiot's Delight

First produced in 1936 (made later into a 1939 film starring Clark Gable), the work was inspired by Sherwood's harrowing wartime experiences. Similar to J.G. Farrell's award-winning 1970 novel Troubles in its symbolic premise of eccentric people moving through a rapidly-decaying hotel during perilous times, Idiot's Delight is a busy, even fussy tale, polka-dotted with an array of colorful characters including dancing girls, newlyweds, a scientist, a Marxist, a song-and-dance man, an arms dealer, and a mysterious Russian. While the tale could turn into a cliched, "zany caper"-style piece, its foreboding subtext - the threat of war - and its probing treatment of past memories and present circumstances lend it a timelessness that makes it feel like less of a time capsule than a fascinating portrait of relationships and the need for connection.

Currently running through March 1st at Toronto's Young Centre for the Performing Arts by Soulpepper Theatre Company, Idiot's Delight is part of what Artistic Director (and in this case, the play's director) Albert Schultz has included as his five-year-plan to commemorate the start of the First World War. The play contains snippets of song interspersed with serious drama; we're not sure if this is a comedy, drama, tragedy, or musical, but it is, in fact, a touching mix of all three, wrapped in a thoughtful message about love, loss, memory, and survival. As assistant director Paula Wing writes in the program notes, "There's a big message here about war and its senseless costs but Sherwood never misses a chance to make a wry observation, poke a little fun, tell a good joke or celebrate a moment of human connection."

Such larger themes are hinted at walking into Idiot's Delight, where old-world European music is being played before the start of the play, its mournful, cyclical sound full of longing and romance. Visually, set designer Lorenzo Savoini's work here is beautiful to behold, a faux-marble-come-old-meets-new hotel lobby-bar, complete with an immense set of stairs at one end, wrought iron railings, and seven languorous wall sconces evenly spread across the set's back end. The design suggests something at once ominous, old, welcoming, and cozily old-world. It's all of these things that clash with an outside world hinted at and alluded to but never shown. Sherwood sets the piece on the eve of World War Two, in a hotel peopled by figures both involved and completely outside its inevitable arrival. Among the hotel's guests are there are a pair of British newlyweds (Mikaela Davies and Gordon Hecht), a German scientist (William Webster), an arms dealer (Diego Matamoros) and his mysterious Russian partner (Raquel Duffy), five blonde dancers touring with a song-and-dance producer (Dan Chameroy), and a sympathetic waiter who was born in Austria but is now Italian because of shifting international borders (Evan Buliung).

While there's something surreal about people singing in the face of oncoming doom, Sherwood's script uses this aspect to dramatic advantage; Schultz nicely pulls the contrast between happy and sad too, using a combination of clever blocking, lighting, and design to lend a cabaret feel to the proceedings. Mike Ross' musical direction sparkles, recalling elements of Soulpepper's past productions of Our Town and The Fantasticks. Classic tunes "Beautiful Dreamer" and "Where Or When" serve as the production's musical motifs, their dreamy, bittersweet qualities highlighting both the epic and intimate circumstances presented. There's just the right balance of bittersweet and joyous, heart-rending and heart-warming, to make this production a thoughtful examination of war, peace, nationality, identity, love, and even hate.

Schultz effectively manages the immense cast through clever use of the broad Baillie Theatre stage. The placement of the five blonde showgirls up and down the grand staircase during musical numbers, their silver dresses glinting, give a sense of occasion and pizzazz, even as their shifting proximity to and from the entranced soldiers gathered at the cafe hints at darker undercurrents. A grand piano, placed upstage at just the right angle, allows Chameroy to show off his considerable musical chops. And, while the stage doesn't change, the placement of props does; Evan Buliung's sighing waiter rearranges numerous sets of round, bistro-style tables and chairs; never has the shifting of furniture been so infused with character, and, simultaneously, loaded with the play's themes around shifting borders and identities. What might amount to a doddering, dithering series of distracting movements is instead presented as a key part of character and narrative development, with Dumpsty's gentle knowingness and quietly sad resignation at the inevitability of changeability within the play's wider world.

It's a lot to absorb, thematically and character-wise, but anchoring such disparate elements is the relationship Sherwood paints between Harry (Chameroy) and Irene (Duffy). Did they have a one-night stand years before? Does it matter? Is she lying? Is he? What is the nature of attraction? Is there such a thing as love at first sight? Performers Dan Chameroy and Raquel Duffy beautifully capture the underpinnings of longing, regret, love, and loss here, with sensitive, knowing portraits of two adults who've pulled through incredible circumstances and find themselves at a juncture, both in their lives, and in the wider world. Soulpepper Academy graduate Duffy gives a shattering performance as the mysterious Irene. What could have easily turned into a "Natasha"/Bullwinkle-type characterization is instead deeply felt, her choice to use both small and large body language (an eyebrow raise here; a sweep of the arms there) revealing a deeply wounded woman behind the blonde-haired, tight-dressed bravado.

Dan Chameroy (whom Canadian audiences may know from his many roles at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival) paints an eminently likeable portrait of the fast-talking Harry Van, turning what could've turned into a cliched part into something far deeper and stronger. His American-newspaperman accent never cloys, instead serving as a kind of mask hiding a far deeper, more soft-spoken sensitivity, and again, his mix of large and small gestures (wide-eyed stares, puffed-out chest) hints at a layered individual who's weathered the knocks of life with grace and a well-placed humility.

Longtime Soulpepper performers including Jeff Lillico (as frustrated American hotel worker Donald Navadel) and Diego Matamoros (as arms dealer Achille Weber) are offer solid performances too; Lillico embodies the 1930s American abroad, all shrugs and eyerolls, while Matamoros conveys a quiet if menacing confidence, his Achille a man who wields his carefully-chosen words like well-pointed weapons, their aim true, their destruction devastating. Soulpepper Academy graduate Gregory Prest offers an energetic, rage-filled portrait of the young Frenchman Quillery, whose political zeal drives him to a tragic end.

At the play's end, as John Gzowski's harrowing sound design bringing the terror of war closer, one can't help but recall Irene's earlier line about "Poor dear God, playing "Idiot's Delight." The game that never means anything and never ends." And yet, beyond the solitaire, there is community. Even as Harry and Irene continue to laugh, sing, cry and cuddle amidst the chaos, one can't help but recall the lines from The Fantasticks' best-known number:

Try to remember the kind of September
When life was slow and oh, so mellow.
Try to remember the kind of September
When grass was green and grain was yellow.
Try to remember the kind of September
When you were a tender and callow fellow.
Try to remember, and if you remember,
Then follow.

Top photo: Dan Chameroy & Raquel Duffy | Photography by Cylla von Tiedemann.
Bottom photo: Raquel Duffy, Paolo Santalucia, & Diego Matamoros | Photography by Cylla von Tiedemann

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From This Author Catherine Kustanczy

Catherine an arts writer specializing in reviews and longform profile features. She has worked in Dublin, London, Toronto, and New York City, in a variety (read more...)