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`Idiot's Delight': badly dated play given snappy production

Idiot's Delight Play by Robert E. Sherwood. Directed by Peter Sellars. Even before ``Idiot's Delight'' begins, it has begun. The American National Theater (ANT) has just revived Robert E. Sherwood's somber comedy about life on the edge of the precipice that was World War II.

In mounting this 1936 play, ANT director Peter Sellars has filled the Kennedy Center's Eisenhower Theater before the curtain rises with a great buzz of voices in various languages and crowd sounds. It includes speeches by Hitler, Mussolini, Pope Pius XII, and jazz and pop. The effect is of a giant shortwave radio, badly tuned to some middle-European nation. Abruptly the cacophony ends and Act 1 begins in the middle of a chillingly handsome set representing an Italian Alps hotel -- all dark, mottled glass, hard-edged lines, and '30s chrome, dominated by two malevolently brooding Fascist eagles.

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Mr. Sellars as a director really knows how to set the stage for the controversial productions of the plays he chooses, from the fascinating political melodrama of ``The Count of Monte Cristo'' to his romp with Chekhov's tragedy ``The Seagull'' to this new production with its sets by George Tsypin. He grabs our attention from the first moment. Still, can he keep it, with a play that was then a poignant comedy about frivolous people dancing in the shadows of war but today seems badly dated. When ``Idiot's Delight'' opened on Broadway, it starred that fabulous acting couple, the Lunts. Although it won a Pulitzer Prize then, it would take more than Alfred Lunt and his wife, Lynn Fontanne, today to compensate for the moths of time.

Stacy Keach leads the cast as Harry Van, the seedy American manager of a string of rhinestoned, gum-snapping strippers and dancers known as ``Les Blondes.'' He hurls himself into the role with his usual professionalism and vigor, giving us a Van who is full of smarmy charm and snappy palaver. The rest of the cast, with a few exceptions, is not up to Keach's polished performance.

JoBeth Williams makes a stunning entrance in Dietrich style, slathered in yards of white fox and slinky white crepe as a Nazi munitions king's mistress, Irene. But she can't seem to sustain the image of glamorous decadence created by one of Kurt Wilhelm's best costumes for this show. As Achille Weber, the merchant of death, Werner Kemperer moves with a Prussian, heel-clicking rigidity but never goes beyond the semi-sinister. ``Achille can give you all the war news -- because he made it'' describes him trading in everything from poison gas to battleships. Sam Robards and Anne Beresford Clark play a British honeymoon couple, the Cherrys. They are both amusing and elegant as whippets but a bit too arch for this play, as though they were prancing through a Coward comedy.

Sellars as a director is imaginative and unpredictable. But in this production he seems to have chosen the wrong play, staging it with long, soggy pauses that work against the tragicomic effect that is part of his signature in the theater. A revival of Lillian Hellman's ``Watch on the Rhine'' might have been a better choice. But even when Sellars veers from success as he has here, he manages to conjure up a marvelous sense of period on stage. We are in '30s-land, with ``Deep Purple'' and other hits from an onstage piano in an ``Idiot's Delight'' replete with marcelled hairdos, seamed stockings, and wooden skis.

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