Trumbo: Red, White and Blacklisted
Last Saturday I was walking down Pine Street in Center City Philadelphia, and I stopped at a shop a few blocks away from the Plays and Players Theater. A friend of mine happened to be in the shop, and I told him I had just come from a matinee of Trumbo: Red, White and Blacklisted. My friend, who is in his late sixties, told me he had seen the poster for the play, and was startled because "the guy in the poster looks like me!" Yes, I said – that gentleman with the balding head and the gray mustache is Dalton Trumbo (1905-1976), the Hollywood screenwriter portrayed in the play. My friend said that what was especially startling about the poster was the fact that "my dad looked like me," so every time he saw the picture of Dalton Trumbo, he was reminded of his late father.
I suppose my friend would be the perfect audience for Trumbo. Christopher Trumbo wrote this play about his own late father, and in portraying Dalton Trumbo as a warrior with a pen, taking a courageous stand against the Hollywood blacklist, he seems to be asking the audience to see themselves in his father – or at least to see in him the principles we wish we had.
While the playwright defends his father's stand, he doesn't defend his father's Communist beliefs. Christopher Trumbo makes clear early on that he doesn't share his father's political views, and he doesn't spend much time explaining them or justifying them (that would make it harder for the audience to find him sympathetic). What he does do is explain why Dalton Trumbo hated the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), why he refused to answer their questions about his politics in 1947, and why he refused to compromise his beliefs even when it meant a prison term for Contempt of Congress and a difficult time providing for his family.
Trumbo has almost no action. It's less a play than a staged reading. There are only two actors, and they spend most of the play's ninety minutes reading from binders holding their scripts. They have very little interaction; Dalton hardly even moves from his seat behind a table. There's little of visual interest here, except for an occasional video projection to give us some feel for the era.
Yet, despite the sometimes stiff presentation, Trumbo is fascinating and often spellbinding. The reason? The words. The play consists almost entirely of letters written by Dalton Trumbo, a man with a rare gift for language. His letters were rarely short, yet they were always to the point. In one letter he berates a former friend, calling him "a political hermaphrodite" who has "no politics but expediency." In another he condemns a producer who has sold out to the Hollywood studios to get work. In yet another, he chastises a school principal for allowing his daughter to be bullied because of her father's politics, asking how the principal could allow "this slow murder of the mind and heart and spirit of a small child."
Not all of the letters are political in nature. He is full of biting sarcasm as he writes a contractor who worked on his house ("Dear Burglar," the letter begins). There are love letters to his wife and a birthday poem for Christopher, both written from prison. In the most moving letter, he writes to the mother of a friend who has passed away and reveals how their friendship was tested during World War II. And, in the play's raunchiest segment, he writes to a teenaged Christopher and reveals how his life was transformed by a sex manual.
There's much in Dalton Trumbo's story that still has the power to shock, especially when it's revealed what a bipartisan effort the blacklist was. At the performance I attended, gasps were heard from the audience often, notably when Hubert Humphrey's involvement in helping HUAC was mentioned. Moments like that make the play's subject matter relevant and make one recognize that threats to our liberties can come from any side when we least expect them.
Bill Irwin portrays Dalton Trumbo as a figure who commands respect with his every noble word and gesture, even though his own behavior has not always been saintly. As Christopher, Bill Zielinski is a likable everyman – it's his job to narrate the play in between his father's letters and to make us understand his father's cantankerous nature. They perform admirably, and Peter Askin (who also directed this play Off-Broadway) stages everything effectively. The acting and the direction aren't the primary reasons to see Trumbo; the real reason is to marvel in Trumbo's use of language and to see why his son admired him so much.
Even if you (or your father) don't look like Dalton Trumbo – or Bill Irwin – perhaps you'll see a bit of yourself in his struggle to stand up for what he believes is right, no matter how many people tell him he's wrong.
Trumbo runs through November 7 at Plays and Players Theater, 1714 Delancey Street. Ticket prices range from $30 to $45 and may be purchased by calling Philadelphia Theatre Company at (215) 569-9700, online at www.phillytheatreco.com or by visiting the box office.
Trumbo: Red, White and Blacklisted