On Saturday morning our President-Elect angrily demanded that a theater production team apologize for publicly admonishing the country’s next vice president to work on behalf of all Americans. That evening, I saw a new play about an authoritarian regime’s attempt to shut down production of a movie that satirized its malevolent leader. Later that night, a TV show lampooned the President-Elect; the next morning he responded with a call that his own agenda be given “equal time.”
John Morogiello’s The Consul, the Tramp and America’s Sweetheart takes place in the executive office suite of erstwhile “America’s sweetheart” Mary Pickford (Melanie Chartoff), the silent film star ingénue who later co-founded and chaired the major Hollywood studio United Artists. The year is 1939, and Nazi Germany’s L. A. consul George Gyssling (Shawn Savage) pays an unannounced visit to Pickford on the studio lot after learning that Charlie Chaplin (Brian Stanton) is casting aside his long-popular “little tramp” character to make a film for UA that will expressly ridicule Adolf Hitler. If this picture goes ahead, Gyssling warns, his nation will forbid any of the studio’s films from being released in its very lucrative market.
That Chaplin film was, of course, The Great Dictator, distributed by United Artists in 1940. Gyssling is also a genuine historical figure who really did dissuade Hollywood studios from making films unfriendly to the Nazis prior to World War II by threatening Germany’s embargo. A production note advises that the play is “suggested by true events,” so it’s unclear if Gyssling actually approached Pickford to try and quash The Great Dictator, let alone if she readily complied with all of his demands, as Morogiello indicates here. In addition to the three title characters, the playwright also gives us Esther Hollombe (Laura Lee Walsh), Pickford’s secretary and would-be protégée, who narrates the story and provides some historical background for the audience.
Director Jules Aaron infuses The Consul, the Tramp and America’s Sweetheart with the spirit of a 1930s screwball comedy, which Morogiello’s dialogue is just fizzy enough to accommodate (although the pacing flags a little in moments when the fourth wall gets broken). An Old Hollywood ambience is well established by set designer Jeff G. Rack’s compellingly detailed stage layout, which enhances the tonal lure of the principal actors. Savage is chilling as Gyssling, the Nazi bureaucrat who has no compunction about applying ruthless tactics even outside his government’s jurisdiction. Chartoff’s Pickford is a bloodless entertainment-industry titan, always shrewdly assessing the competing imperatives presented to her by Gyssling and Chaplin without letting moral responsibilities interfere with her calculations. The character of Chaplin is drawn with a kind of Bill-Clintonian combination of roguish charm, strategic savvy and righteous fervor, to which Stanton adds a formidable comedic physical presence.
The basic appeal of this play as an old-fashioned entertaining historical set piece is obviously inflected by thematic parallels between the story being told and various narratives now playing out in our own strange time. Whether by luck or prescience, The Consul, the Tramp and America’s Sweetheart turns out to be a surprisingly topical theater piece for the present moment. Plus there are some laughs. It may not be a play for the ages, but I gotta say, it hits the right spot right now.