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Assembled with consummate intelligence, no little imagination, and a near total absence of tone at Signature Theatre, Shooting in Madrid, Tug Yourgrau’s play about American literary idealists and the Spanish Civil War, is the sort of misbegotten evening in which even the things that work somehow feel desperately wrong.

Its opening moments are typical: A flamenco singer belts a cante jondo as images of warfare—bombs exploding, civilians covering their heads as they run for cover—flicker on an overhead screen. Suddenly, one of those civilians seems to have materialized onstage, but as he stumbles into a spotlight, you realize his forefingers are pointing straight out from his forehead. Turns out it’s Ernest Hemingway (Sam Tsoutsouvas) miming a bullfight for a movie camera. Funny, no? Perhaps a mocking juxtaposition of images from the pages of For Whom the Bell Tolls?

Well, actuallyÉno. That may well be what was intended, but on a stage inexplicably decorated to look like a 3-D Kandinsky painting, the moment not only plays without literary associations (we won’t even know the reeling lout is Hemingway until halfway through the scene that follows), it carries not one iota of ironic weight.

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Nor does the arrival of dewy-eyed dilettante Martha Gellhorn (who would later become Hemingway’s wife and a famed war correspondent), attired in a Spanish Republican Army outfit topped by a mink stole. That combination, you’d think, would guarantee audience chuckles. But at a performance last week, it was met with stony silence, even as Rhea Seehorn gulped frivolously about how thrilled her character was to be frolicking in the trenches with the anti-fascists.

Later, the crowd barely cracked a smile as Hemingway mooned Franco’s generals in the middle of a pitched battle. And if there was giggling in some quarters when John Dos Passos (a peculiarly prissy John Lescault) erupted in a flurry of flamenco stomps upon learning that a friend had been killed, that surely wasn’t what the creators intended.

Then again, who knows? The author’s purpose in illuminating the two weeks these three writers spent at Madrid’s Hotel Florida helping Dutch filmmaker Joris Ivens (Paul Morella) make his documentary The Spanish Earth seems to be to show how journalistic idealism either flickers or grows willfully blind in the face of war. But the effect of the dialogue in Tom Prewitt’s uncharacteristically feckless staging is mostly to make Yourgrau’s central characters look like naifs.

Dos Passos—who went into political and career spirals following the war, ending up a right-wing ideologue with a tarnished literary reputation—comes off best in Shooting in Madrid. Speaking Spanish on occasion and behaving in a manner that suggests that truth and journalism have some connection in his mind, he at least calls a spade a pala. The others devolve into showboating poster kids for reportorial expediency, casually reworking reality to their own ends and becoming increasingly self-righteous as they do so.

This might seem more interesting if the director weren’t allowing his actors to bellow their way through much of the evening in a style best termed top-of-your-lungs naturalism. Lines like Ivens’ camera-proffering declaration, “I make film to fight a war….This is my weapon,” sound not one whit more persuasive at top volume than they would in a whisper. (Morella’s undependable Dutch accent doesn’t help, but I’m inclined to cut him some slack, since he’s also required to do his own whistling for bombs and bup-bup-bup-bupping for machine-gun fire. Seehorn’s screen-sirenish Martha is operating under no such handicaps, however, and her lines sound every bit as idiotic.)

The problem obviously has its roots in Yourgrau’s script, which, when it isn’t chummily calling its leading characters Hem, Dos, and Marty, is trafficking almost exclusively in inflated rhetoric. “What you will write about Madrid the world will never forget,” Ivens tells Hem at one point, less because el grande Ernesto needs to hear himself lauded than because the play’s audience most certainly has forgotten and needs reminding. Still, the production might have found ways to lend a certain distance to such pronouncements rather than laboring to make them credible.

Of all the creative team’s miscalculations, none proves more counterproductive than its decision to use actual footage from The Spanish Earth as a scene-setting device. Next to the authenticity of the grim, death-defying, black-and-white shadows on screen, the author’s crass, noisily self-important stage cutups can’t help looking hopelessly insubstantial.CP