The Consul, The Tramp, and America’s Sweetheart, now in its West Coast premiere at Theater 40, is a cousin to Blueprint to Paradise, which ran last summer at Hudson Theater. In that play (based on a true story), we met two Nazis who had come to L.A. in 1940 to confer with a local Hitler-loving businessman on the construction of a building which would house the Fuhrer when he came in triumph to rule over America’s West Coast. John Morogiello’s play, which is also based on fact and unfolds right before WWII, looks at the Nazi influence on L.A. from a slightly different, but equally disturbing, angle.
In 1939 word leaked out in the film world that Charlie Chaplin was working on a film that would poke outrageous fun at The Great Dictator himself. That prompted the Nazi government to instruct its General Consul in L.A., Georg Gyssling, to do all he could to prevent the film from being made.
Gyssling (strong performance by Shawn Savage) was a popular figure in Hollywood, a man who had long helped the studios to promote and distribute their films in Germany. That he was also a well-known Nazi didn’t seem to bother the studio heads, despite the fact that most of them were Jewish. Business took precedence over principles with these moguls, it would appear.
Gyssling, who also had close ties to the film censors in the Hayes Office, was confident that he could use his power to kill just about any anti-Nazi film in the works—including Chaplin’s latest. He does it by cornering Mary Pickford (Melanie Chartoff), Chaplin’s partner at United Artists, in her office and demanding that she force Chaplin to abide by his orders. Pickford, a capable but fearful businesswoman, defers to Chaplin here, calling him on the phone and begging him to deal with Gyssling.
Brian Stanton does a splendid job of impersonating Chaplin and capturing his many sides: genius performer, passionate humanist, liberal thinker, lover of young women. That brings us to the fourth person in Morogiello’s tight little drama: Miss Hollombe (the dynamic Laura Lee Walsh), Pickford’s secretary, who goes from being a seemingly incidental, comic-relief kind of character to the driving force in the play, a fiery spokesperson for democracy and idealism.
Chaplin, when he isn’t making passes at her, backs her up in her fight against the arrogant, oozily charming Gyssling, though it remains for Miss Hollombe to deliver one of the play’s key speeches (taken from “Modern Times”).
Theater 40 has given The Consul a worthy production, starting with Jeff G. Rack’s splendid, spacious set (with Hollywood backdrop mural by Jeff Raum) and continuing with Michele Young’s period costumes and Ric Zimmerman’s clever lighting. Mustn’t forget Jules Aaron’s expert, snappy direction either.