Charleston Stage’s Inga Binga doesn’t know what it wants to be when it grows up. In its world premiere, the play is experiencing a bit of an adolescent identity crisis.
Set in an art deco hotel room at the luxurious Fort Sumter Hotel on the Battery, Inga Binga starts out as a dramatic spy story. Then, it becomes a love story. Then, it becomes a slapstick comedy. Then, it becomes a tragic love story of Casablanca proportions. In the end, it is a romanticized tale of young JFK’s affair with Inga Arvad in Charleston during World War II. The pat ending guarantees the fulfillment of the mythic Camelot era in the Kennedy White House.
Playwright and director Julian Wiles paints the suspected Nazi-spy Arvad as a self-sacrificing woman who gives up her true love for a greater cause: Kennedy heroically saving the crew of PT Boat 109 and getting elected U.S. president in 1960. Some characters are three-dimensional, and some characters are stereotypes. The entire cast is top-notch, but a well-developed character begins with the writing.
Well researched, well developed, well written, Phil Mills as Ensign Jack Kennedy is the anchor to the entire play, narratively as well as artistically. Cast well for the part with a resemblance to Kennedy and Matt Damon, Mills brings authenticity to role. Young, idealistic Kennedy is charming and ambitious, but has no political aspirations, because his older brother, Joe Jr. is being groomed for that. No, Jack is set on proving wrong his overbearing and powerful father, Ambassador Joseph Kennedy, by serving in the Navy despite his health problems and succeeding in journalism or academia after the war.
With a reputation for casual dalliances with many women, Jack is in love and yearns for more than a sexy tryst with the former Miss Denmark, Inga Arvad. “Until you came along, I didn’t know lovemaking had a third act,” he tells her. “I want to marry you,” he confesses to the once-divorced and still married Inga. Inga is a beautiful, exotic, and independent women. As a journalist for the Washington Times- Herald, she interviewed world figures, including the charmed Adolph Hitler. Immediately after meeting Jack through his sister Kathleen, Inga’s co-worker at the paper, the two began a passionate affair.
The chemistry between Kennedy and Inga is obvious. From the beginning, Gardner Reed as Inga is over-the-top and strained. The severe hairstyle draws attention to her tension and worldliness. Her Danish accent ebbs and flows. Gardner needs motivation to vary her reactions, her expressions and tone. Her self-defense against charges of espionage is understandable, but the long, heightened explanation is tiring, and causes us to wonder what the attraction is for young Mr. Kennedy. When the action changes to the next beat, Mills and Reed re-establish their connection. The tearful ending is melodramatic as a consequence of the script, but Reed delivers a sympathetic performance. Using Inga as a mouthpiece for a generation of Baby Boomers, the last scene is a bit heavy on romanticizing the Kennedy legacy, and concludes that Kennedy’s and Inga’s illicit love affair would endanger his “destiny to be brighter and greater.”
The supporting characters are drawn from historical documentation from Wile’s extensive research of the Kennedy/Arvad affair. The two-dimensional personalities are Wiles’ creation, but they are cleverly matched. Josh Harris’ naïve and fumbling Skip is a cute foil to Victor Clark’s seasoned F.B.I. man, Hank. Bud the bellhop represents the local citizenry, and except for the lack of a Charleston accent, Derek T. Pickens is a delightful Charlestonian. Playing Jack’s elegant and loyal best friend Lem Billings, Brian Porter complements Mills and Reed in keeping the story grounded in realism. Life magazine reporter Betty (Beth Curley) and photographer Red (Luke Whitmire) are energetic, with polished comedic timing, but their characters are stereotypes and out of place for this story. Nevertheless, Whitmire’s knack for physical humor elicits plenty of chuckles.
Julian Wiles’ script is tweaked for the local audience in ways that wouldn’t play in other parts of the country: the “truce” that settled the War Between the States and Southern girls are serious about chastity, unlike girls in other parts of the country. Good historical fiction offers a plausible interpretation and plot. The climax of Inga Binga suddenly turns into a ludicrous denouement in an attempt to resolve the plot line and make it fit in with reality. Slapstick comedy also needs a level of plausibility, and the shower scene revolving around mistaken identity is clumsy. The comic relief in Wiles’ script works best when it is subtle and strategically scattered. It doesn’t work when the comedy becomes slapstick. The inconsistency in the tone and characterization lessens the play’s overall impact of an intriguing story. Wiles needs to decide what he wants his play to be: a drama with bits of comedic relief or a straightforward farce.