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‘Idiot’s Delight’ Combines War, Romance at UCSB

Against a backdrop of chaos, Robert Sherwood's play keeps the focus on relationships.

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The next production of Theater UCSB will be Idiot’s Delight, a Robert E. Sherwood play that was written and first staged in 1936, with Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, and made into a film three years later, with Clark Gable and Norma Shearer.

In the UCSB production, Erika Lee and Brennan Kelleher will play the world-weary travelers flung together by a world on the brink of war, while the radiant Christy Escobar takes on a role that has undergone a gender transformation since the 1936 production. The show will be directed by Aaron Levin, with sets by Tal Sanders, and costumes by Ann Bruice and Alexandria Hoffman.

Sherwood (1896-1955) was an amazingly interesting guy, for a writer. His mother was a famous portrait painter, his great-great grandfather was attorney general of New York, and in 1803, his great-great uncle led a failed revolt against British rule in Ireland, and was hanged.

Sherwood went to World War I before the United States did; he joined the Canadian Black Watch and fought on the Western Front — gassed at Vimy Ridge, he was wounded at Amiens. He was a charter member of the circle of witty writers — Robert Benchley, Edna Ferber, George S. Kaufman, Dorothy Parker, Harold Ross, Alexander Woolcott and others — who, during the 1920s, regularly ate lunch around a round table in the dining room of New York’s Algonquin Hotel.

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In all, Sherwood won four Pulitzer Prizes: three for plays — Idiot’s Delight, Abe Lincoln in Illinois, There Shall Be No Night — and one for biography — Roosevelt and Hopkins. During World War II, at President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s request, he served as special assistant to both the Secretary of War and the Secretary of the Navy, before he became director of overseas operations of the Office of War Information.

Unlike most of the anti-war plays and books of the 1920s and ‘30s — plays like Journey’s End, What Price Glory?, or Sherwood’s Waterloo Bridge; novels like All Quiet on the Western Front, Under Fire or A Farewell to ArmsIdiot’s Delight deals not with World War I, still known as "The Great War," but with the war that everybody knew was coming.

On the brink of a world war, an odd assortment of travelers, vacationers and honeymooners is stranded in a resort hotel in the Italian Alps, close to the Austrian border. As the international gears grind inexorably toward armed conflict, the characters try to work out their private salvations in the middle of worldwide public collapse. Although three years would pass before the war predicted by the play actually broke out, they were, as Evelyn Waugh wrote, "days of surmise and apprehension which cannot, without irony, be called the last days of ‘peace’."

Idiot’s Delight performs in UCSB’s Hatlen Theatre at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and March 6-8, and at 2 p.m. Sunday. To purchase tickets, call 805.893.7221. Ticket prices are $17 for general admission and $13 for students and seniors.

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