Regional Reviews: San Jose/Silicon Valley
With that kind of upbringing, no wonder the boy who grew up to be a playwright (Danny's Brain, The Radio Days) chose to pen a script that combines real and fictionalized characters and actual Committee testimonies to create a story about how this decade-plus of continuous hearings affected in such horrible ways people whose only crime was generally being socially conscious and active for human rights causes. After opening Off-Broadway in 2013 to critical acclaim, Finks receives its West Coast premiere under the same direction as its New York debut, with TheatreWorks Silicon Valley's own Giovanna Sardelli now artistically guiding for her home company a highly engaging, visually electric, and powerfully acted Finks.
Andrea Bechert has created a commanding, multi-dimensional set that allows Giovanna Sardelli seamlessly to shift from an intimate Greenwich Village comedy club to an actor's modest New York apartment to an agent's office to the House Committee's judicially serious hearing roomall on the same stage. With such an ingenuous layout, scenes often overlap, run parallel, or even cross boundaries to interact with each other between time and place. And in the middle of it all hangs a giant American flag with its 48 stars of the early-to-mid 1950s era.
The energy of a late-night club scene, the fun tension of a live radio show, and the fast-clicking shock of flashing reporters' cameras are all part of the quick-changing scenes, thanks to the meticulously planned and executed lighting design of Steven B. Mannshardt and sound design of Jake Rodriguez. When this total setting is combined with the delicious array of 1950s wear that include dark-seamed hosiery, wildly colorful ties, flowing pastel skirts, and seamed baggy pants (all just part of Cathleen Edwards' designed costumes), the table is wonderfully set for the rich experience of a memorable history lesson, a story of human passions and pain, and a wake-up call concerning current events.
What makes Joe Gilford's script initially engrossing and later gripping is the set of fun and funny, talented and temperamental comedians, actors, dancers and singers that we meet early onall of whom are also highly dedicated to causes like injured miners in West Virginia or standing up for local, striking workers. Mickey Dobbs (Jim Stanek) is a stand-up comedian whose late-night banter of one-liners and jabs to his loyal patrons at Café Society are peppered with pointed cracks like "Suddenly, accusations have become final judgments ... It's the Inquisition" and "It's gotten so bad you can't check out a library book without getting put on a list."
His best pal Fred Lang (Gabriel Marin) encourages him in a possible new romance with a married-but-not-happily actress who is also a liberal, organizing firebrand, saying, "If standing up for what's right gets you laid, then mazel tov." The ball of energy he is talking about is Natalie Meltzer (Donna Vivino), a wound-tight, determined go-getter who makes sure she gets the man she wants (Mickey) and gets him to guest perform for meetings and fundraisers for such groups as The Actors' Faction and Artists for Political Action Gathering.
We meet Natalie's pal and sometimes dance partner Bobby Gerard (Leo Ash Evens) as he is practicing in frustration various dance moves in front of an unseen mirror and muttering in disgust to himself, "You couldn't dance your way out of the men's room." But when he and Natalie perform ad hoc a several-minute routine of a body-flying, torso-twisting lindy (fabulously choreographed by Dottie Lester-White), his spoken self-doubts are no longer ours.
While there is some drama in the budding romance of Natalie and Mickey as Mickey awaits hearing about his own possible TV show, the lives of these four look on the surface fairly normal for performing artists who are always tense about the next gig. That they also take out time for doing hilarious routines or singing rousing anthems at various union meetings seems in the beginning (at least to them) as not a big deal.
But unseen to them as they go about their daily lives, we see more and more hearings of the ongoing, notorious House Committee proceedings. As screenwriter Martin Berkeley, famed director Elia Kazan, novelist and screenwriter Budd Schulberg, and actor Lee J. Cobb (all and more played by Richard Frederick and Michael Barrett Austin) are called to the witness stand's microphones, a surreal, repetitive pattern occurs. The Committee Chair, Representative Francis Walter (a stern and clearly self-righteous Robert Sicular) first congratulates each from his high, throne-like perch, pronouncing with booming voice, "May I say for the record we are all extremely grateful you are here today ... to take this valuable and patriotic act." Then invariably with a sickly sweet voice coming through a smirk, he adds, "And on a personal note, my wife recently saw/attended ...," relating how his spouse simply loved one or two of the witness's latest films, plays or performances.
But what is even more startling is that in almost every case these witnesses, with little protest, spill forth names of fellow actors, writers, directors, etc., often going on and on even when the all-mighty Chair says "Thank you" and seems ready to move on. The repeated gushing of betrayals is one of the most shocking scenes, as co-created by playwright, director, and actors.
Such scenes are in great contrast to those we soon see, as people like Fred, Natalie, and Mickey are called before the Committeewhen betrayed by so-called friends and often co-members of the same actor groupsand refuse to cooperate, thus condemning themselves to the so-called blacklist and to no more Hollywood work. As Mickey says in one of his comedy acts, "A subversive is someone who knows their rights and can recite the Fifth Amendment."
The cast assembled by casting directors Leslie Martinson, Jeffrey Lo, and Alan Filderman is a collection of Broadway and local veterans who shine in remarkable fashion as they portray this ugly episode of American history. A naturally funny comic and easygoing guy, Gabriel Marin's Fred Lang takes the stand and, like a brave warrior, stands up in a dual-framed scene to fight off on the one hand the cautions of his back-home friends and then to turn and face the bristling chair, asking in an exasperated, cynical cry, "What secrets would I be passing to the enemy? Acting secrets?"
Jim Stanek's Mickey too is a reluctant hero in the making, as he vacillates in anguish back and forth how to juggle career, family, and ethical pressures and decisions. At one point he speaks for probably hundreds like him: "I just want to be an actor; I don't want to be a hero."
The central moving force throughout is Donna Vivino's absolutely brilliant performance as Natalie Meltzer. Natalie's proud poise as a singer and dancer, her visceral strength as an organizer and persuader of others, and her impressive dedication as a wife and mother are only surpassed by the no-holes-barred clarity she provides on subjects like those who betray their friends and colleagues. With piercing surety she states, "You're not evil because you're a fink; you're a fink because you're evil." Ms. Vivino knocks it out of the park time and again throughout the evening in an award-worthy display of talent.
But perhaps the evening's most lasting image is the final appearance of a silent, dancing Bobby Gerard. Leo Ash Evens' breathtaking finale against the backdrop of a hanging American flag leaves us with a searing example of the human cost of those years and years of false accusations, betrayals, and political grandstanding that were all for naught from a national security standpoint.
It is Natalie who gives us words that can easily sound trite in their simplicity but can also serve as a hopeful reminder that bad times in American historylike those that many of us believe we are now in the midst ofare not permanent, given the nature of the American spirit: "We'll fight this thing because someday, everything will be fine."
Finks, through July 1, 2018, at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro Street, Mountain View CA. Tickets are available online at www.theatreworks.org or by calling 650-463-1960, Monday - Friday 11 a.m. - 6 p.m. and Saturday - Sunday, Noon - 6 p.m.