Monday, June 18, 2012

Love Goes to Press

Imagine that someone told you that you were about to see a play about female war correspondents in World War II, written by Martha Gellhorn and Virginia Cowles, who had actually been female war correspondents in WWII. What would you expect?

Chances are that you wouldn't expect Love Goes to Press (a title not chosen by the authors and described by Gellhorn as "odious"), a three-act play that combines, not always successfully, war, romance, comedy, and farce.

Heidi Armbruster (top), Angela Pierce
Photo: Richard Termine
The play, which was a hit in London just after the war, was a flop in New York soon after. When Gellhorn read the reviews, she wrote, "I must say I agree with them that it was a very minor piece of work, but what I can't quite understand is why they seemed so angry about it." Years later, she wrote "Everyone in those London audiences knew about real war; they had lived through it, either in uniform or as embattled civilians. Knowing the real thing, they were free to laugh at this comic, unreal version of war. . . . Laughter was lifesaving escape. Theater tickets were inexpensive, and a theater was warm because of all the bodies in it. New York was something else."

Some 65 years after its premiere, how does the play hold up? In The Mint's strong but uneven production, Love Goes to Press is a pleasant evening in the theatre,  perhaps more rewarding historically than theatrically. And although I know it is my role to evaluate what Gellhorn and Cowles actually wrote, instead of what I wish they had written, I still wish they had given us a less "minor piece of work." It turns out that they didn't pen this play to express themselves in any real way--they wrote it to make money. Which they didn't. Oh well.

The plot, such as it is, is simple: Annabelle Jones and Jane Mason are war correspondents who have been friends for years. Currently they are in Italy, trying to cover the Allies' attempt to break through the German line at "Mount Sorrello," a fictional version of Monte Cassino. In contrast to many of the male correspondents, who seem happy to stay at the press camp, the women want to go where the action is and provide actual first-hand reporting. They utilize a combination of smarts, wiliness, and manipulation to try to achieve their aims. However, each is bothered by a man who gets in her way (Mason's is head of the press camp; Jones's is her ex-husband) . . .

. . . and, despite the men's intrusiveness, disrespect, and general annoyingness, the women love them.

This is played for laughs, and it is often funny--but it's also kind of bizarre. Even by the mores of the day and the setup of the play, these women are much too smart to be that stupid--particularly the one whose love interest has the bad habit of stealing her stories.

It doesn't help that director Jerry Ruiz's direction fails to set a consistent tone. The storyline is challenging, granted, with its combination of "those boys are so brave," and "I'm a giggling actress visiting the front lines," and "I want to make a difference in the world but I love you," and "I love you but I want you to be a completely different person," and so on. But, for example, the addition of sudden sappy music every time two particular characters meet is distracting, and I wish Ruiz had not allowed (or asked) Rob Breckenridge to play his role as a cartoon (it's a legit interpretation but doesn't mesh with the other performances). On the other hand, the love scene while bombs are exploding nearby is nicely done, and Ruiz's pacing keeps the show energetic and interesting.

The cast has a lot to offer--in particular, Angela Pierce and Heidi Armbruster as the two leads. Steven C. Kemp's set manages to be quite attractive while also being realistically raw and rundown. Andrea Varga's costumes are just right for the people and time period--and becoming as well--and Christian DeAngelis's lighting is appropriately evocative.

To learn about the realities of being a female war correspondent from the 1930s on, your best bet would be to read Cowles's and Gellhorn's reporting and books. For a fun and silly riff on the same topic, you could do worse than Love Goes to Press.

(fifth row center; press ticket)

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