Stage Scene LA: “absolutely splendid performances” in The Consul, The Tramp, and America’s Sweetheart

Here’s a fun fact for you. Hollywood routinely allowed Hitler’s Nazis to dictate movie content during the decade leading up to World War II, a bit of Tinseltown trivia at the heart of John Morogiello’s The Consul, The Tramp, And America’s Sweetheart, the engaging, enlightening latest from Theatre 40.

The German Consul in question is Georg Gyssling (Shawn Savage), assigned to L.A. to ensure that no Hollywood film released in Europe’s second-largest market dare speak ill of Der Führer.

America’s Sweetheart is Mary Pickford (Melanie Chartoff), at forty-seven no longer the screen star of legend but one of five executives running United Artists about to make history with the first talking picture to be directed by …

The Tramp, none other than Charlie Chaplin (Brian Stanton) himself, in pre-production for a movie he’s kept deliberately shrouded in secrecy, that is until today.

A newspaper item has brought Georg to Mary’s office this September morning in 1939, a Hedda Hopper tidbit that Chaplin’s soon-to-be-shot The Great Dictator will be taking comic aim at none other than Hitler himself, a definite Nein-Nein where the Nazis are concerned.

No one is as clueless to the content of Charlie’s latest than Mary, so it’s not until Chaplin’s arrival at her office (and more than a bit of cajoling bordering on actual threats) that the truth comes out.

Chaplin’s Great Dictator may be named Adenoid Hynkel, but it’s clear whom Charlie is targeting, and with the Little Tramp playing both Hynkel and (Hitler forbid!) his Jewish lookalike barber, the stage is set for a showdown pitting Chaplin against The Third Reich, one that has Mary Pickford assigned the unfortunate responsibility of casting the deciding vote on whether The Great Dictator gets made or shelved for good.

Serving as our eyes and ears to the events unfolding over the course of ninety eventful real-time minutes is Miss Hollombe (Laura Lee Walsh) not merely a fictional plot device but one whose presence gives Morogiello’s Julie Harris Playwriting Award-winning play a contemporary edge.

Not only does Miss Hollombe (pronounced Hollum-bee) break the fourth wall throughout, she both reinvents events (e.g., her actual first meeting with Chaplin followed by how she wishes it had gone) and imagines what might have happened out of earshot. (The play’s final scene is entirely her conjecture, though a logical one.)

Fortunately for Miss Hollombe (and for us), the wall separating her anteroom and Mary’s office is paper-thin, allowing considerable eavesdropping even when the secretary is shut out of negotiations with the enemy, a man to whom she is not at all averse to giving a bit of her Glendale-born-and-bred mind.

A timely reminder of the power of demagoguery and racism (Georg refuses to accept that Jews are anything but a breed apart), The Consul, The Tramp, And America’s Sweetheart aims above all to entertain, and entertain it does, thanks to Jules Aaron’s brisk direction and a quartet of absolutely splendid performances.

Chartoff gives Mary equal parts charm, backbone and salt, Savage’s suave, scary Georg defies easy bad-guy Nazi stereotyping, and Walsh’s Miss Hollombe is as spunky and sassy as an all-American gal can get.

Above all there is Stanton, magnificent and revelatory, whether proving Charlie’s identity to Miss Hollombe with a bit of Little Tramp shtick (kudos to choreographer Michelle Bernath) or fighting for his artistic life.

(Unfortunately for this reviewer, side seating all too often hid facial reactions, the back of one actor at one point blocking both scene partners from view.)

Ric Zimmerman’s accomplished lighting, Jeff G. Rack’s finely detailed set, Michèle Young’s pitch-perfect period wear, and Judi Lewin’s equally fine makeup, hair, and wig design give the latest from Theatre 40 an all-around topnotch look, and Joseph “Sloe” Slawinski’s terrific sound design is one of his best, the “whoosh” that takes us in and out of Miss Hollombe’s asides proving a particular treat.

The Consul, The Tramp, And America’s Sweetheart is produced by David Hunt Stafford. Don Solosan is stage manager and Richard Carner assistant stage manager. Bernath is assistant director.

As a Hollywood history lesson, a fly-on-the-wall glimpse at a pair of movie legends, and a thought-provoking reminder that “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose,” The Consul, The Tramp, And America’s Sweetheart could hardly arrive at a more propitious time. It is Theatre 40 at its very best.