Regional Reviews: New Jersey
The Value of Names
The Value of Names reflects upon tragic and tumultuous events which occurred more than fifty years ago. At the peak of its diabolical activity in the early 1950s, the House Un-American Activities Committee was conducting a witch hunt against Hollywood artists who had been associated with the American Communist party and/or organizations that had made common cause with it. Private fascistic organizations (which called for the blacklisting of specified artists) were abetted by highly suspect FBI files provided by J. Edgar Hoover. More than 200 artists became unemployable in their chosen professions because of their political beliefs. Some of those dragged before the committee chose to protect their careers (not always successfully) by expressing fealty to the committee and fulfilling HUAC's demand for the names of others who had participated in political activities along with them.
Although it engages the issues arising from the era of the blacklist, The Value of Names is an exceedingly genial entertainment. The time is the near present, a half century after the events upon which it reflects. The setting is the patio of a luxurious cliffside Malibu home (with ocean view). It is the home of retired actor, cum recreational painter, Benny Silverman (Jack Klugman). Benny had refused to testify before HUAC and consequently endured much hardship during the blacklist era. Thereafter, Benny made a comeback as the star of a hit television sit-com. Benny has a house guest in the form of his actress daughter Norma (Liz Larsen) who is beginning rehearsals for a play being produced in Los Angeles. She is trying to jump start a career that she had short circuited for a marriage which has failed. The witty and often quietly incisive exchanges between Benny and Norma reflect the combination of affection and hostility which is common among parents and their adult children. As in life, the hostility here arises from past grievances and jockeying for position in the relationship. From time to time, Norma narrates and relates stories directly to the audience which enlighten us about events and relationships within the family. Benny will respond by commenting to her on what she has told us. These moments are so well written and performed that they feel integral and natural.
Soon after, the play's director falls ill. Hired in his place is successful film director Leo Gershen (Dan Lauria). Leo had given Benny's name to HUAC to protect his first opportunity to direct a film. (It seems a stretch, but, as it is written and acted here, it is unlikely to give one pause). All of this leads to the major scene of the play, the confrontation between Benny and Leo. They are two artists molded in the cauldron of anti-Semitism and social activism, both unjustly placed in an untenable situation which has led to a lifetime of scars and enmity. Still, even here, the dialogue remains buoyant and entertaining. After all, Benny and Leo are men whose weapons are wit and words. And, although he can never forgive Leo, Benny's ultimate success, the passage of time and the perspective which it has given him, have tempered the harshness of his anger.
The dialogue crackles. Here's just a small sampling. Leo expresses his preference for New York and the way in which the changing of the seasons helpfully keeps one aware of the passage of time thusly, "Every three months, you got another season to kick you in the ass". When Benny says that he would not work with "certain blabberers" on his sit-com, Norma taunts him with "Was there a list?". As to Benny's objection to her working with Leo, Norma asks, "Do you want me to blacklist myself?" Leo says that he is not looking for forgiveness although he clearly is. He holds his self-righteousness as a shield when he tells Benny, "Then, I was told that if I confessed and gave a few names, I'd cleanse myself of my sins. Now, I'm supposed to cleanse myself by confessing that I did wrong. I won't do it again." Specious argument, but it fits Leo perfectly. Benny has a topper, an exceptionally clever analogy which he has laying in wait for Leo. And it will not be revealed here.
Jack Klugman has a star quality which delightfully blends his own performing persona into each of his roles. The sharp witted, comfortable with himself, yet still contentious Benny Silverman is a perfect match for the Klugman persona. After all, Klugman made his Broadway debut in the 1952 revival of Golden Boy starring the blacklisted John Garfield, and attained the pinnacle of his success with the TV series version of The Odd Couple. The look on Klugman's face when he hears Leo's voice and knows that the latter is present, tells us more about Benny's state of mind than pages of dialogue could. It is both priceless and worth the price of admission.
Dan Lauria is a most convincing Leo. Lauria may look a little like Martin Scorsese, but his New York accent and inflections are pure Leo Gershen. Lauria brings out the rich sub-text which author Sweet has provided for this role. While making the falsity of his bonhomie apparent, Lauria allows us to see Leo's regret and unhappiness, so that we may consider the possibility that he may be even more of a victim of HUAC than is Benny.
Liz Larsen is crisp and delightful. Her determined, full of life Norma is perceptibly a chip off the old Benny. Director James Glossman, whose work is becoming ubiquitous on New Jersey stages, has directed with a light touch which has brought out the best in his talented cast.
The elaborate set by R. Michael Miller is a wonder. The large (it appears) concrete house is multi-dimensional, filled as it is with a large number of angles and details. It is fronted by a stone patio with several pathways and surrounded by foliage and plants. There are French doors leading to a visible, richly furnished sitting room. The stage front arcs into the auditorium just in front of the arc of the first row of seats, creating more intimacy than usually afforded here.
Jack Klugman and Dan Lauria are gloriously embodying two wounded but indomitable lions in winter in the smart and witty The Value of Names. Pay them a visit. You will be glad that you did.
The Value of Names continues performances (Evenings: Tues. - Sat. 8 p.m.; Sun. except 12/10 & 12/17) 7 p.m. / Matinees Sat. (except 12/2) and Sun. 2 p.m./ No performances Thanksgiving 11/23) through December 17, 2006 at the George Street Playhouse, 9 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick, NJ 08901. Box Office: 732-246-7717; online: www.GSPonline.org
The Value of Names by Jeffrey Sweet; directed by