Fascinating S.O.B.

GableStage's portrayal of blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo reveals an American original

He was called, among other things, fascinating, abrasive, wise, vain, ruthless, tenderhearted, indefatigable, and contentious. His wife once commented: "How glad I am that I married this crazy man instead of some dull son of a bitch." Such was the impact of Dalton Trumbo, the famed screenwriter and raconteur whose principled struggle with the McCarthy-era witch-hunt is at the heart of Trumbo, a play by his son Christopher, now in production at GableStage in Coral Gables. The production features the theater's artistic director, Joseph Adler, as Trumbo. It's Adler's first stage appearance in nearly two decades -- a bold move that's both a clever publicity stunt and effective casting; the affectionate descriptions of Trumbo's personality could be and have been applied to the ebullient Adler. (Later in the run, noted journalist Michael Putney will take over the role of Trumbo.)

Had Trumbo merely been a prolific Hollywood scribe (Kitty Foyle, Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo, Five Come Back) he would have probably receded into obscurity, a subject of interest only for film students and Jeopardy! contestants. But Trumbo is widely known as one of the Hollywood Ten, a group of leftist screenwriters who refused to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee in the late 1940s. Like the others, Trumbo was imprisoned (for a year), then blacklisted in Hollywood, unable to work under his own name. To survive, Trumbo moved to Mexico with his family, worked for a tenth of his regular fee, and used friends as "fronts," continuing to write such great films as Gun Crazy, Roman Holiday (an Oscar winner for Ian McLellan Hunter, who later acknowledged that the story was Trumbo's), and The Brave One (another Oscar winner for "Robert Rich," a Trumbo pseudonym). It was only in the 1960s that Trumbo could get his name back on his pictures, including Spartacus, Exodus, and Johnny Got His Gun. Throughout his later career, Trumbo never backed down from his criticism of the McCarthy era, which he called "barbarism parading as public virtue."

Much of Trumbo's personality can be explained by his Colorado roots and a hardscrabble early life of rough work, plain speaking, and self-reliant idealism. He had a background he had in common with Harold Ross and a number of other writers and journalists in the early 20th Century. In fact, he was a member of the Communist party for a few years in the 1940s, but his commitment was never strong (he dropped out because the drive to party meetings was too much of a nuisance), and his politics were really more that of a romantic populist than of a dedicated leftist. Like many a Westerner, what Trumbo really didn't like was being pushed around by big business and big government, and that got him into trouble. His problems with HUAC were considered by many in Hollywood to be delayed payback for his involvement in establishing the Writers Guild of America, which organized screenwriters after a long and bitter fight with the studios.

Miller (left) and Adler: A zest for the material
Miller (left) and Adler: A zest for the material

Details

Presented through September 12 by GableStage. Call 305-445-1119 or visit http://gablestage.org/
Biltmore Hotel, 1200 Anastasia Ave., Coral Gables

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As theater, Trumbo's travails have solid dramatic potential, but it is his copious letter writing and his penchant for pungent, often hilarious commentary that make him a prime candidate for a stage project. The two-man show tracks the reminiscences of the writer's son Christopher alternating with his father's passionate letters to an array of friends and foes. Two memorable sequences include Trumbo's raucous letter to his son about masturbation and his poignant poem about Christopher's birth, written to celebrate his son's tenth birthday. Both Adler and Bruce Miller as Christopher use a script-in-hand technique that makes Trumbo more of a presentation than a performance.

This "staged reading" style of production has its upside -- the attention remains clearly on Trumbo's words and personality, not on the cast -- but the cost is an erratic theatrical focus. Of necessity, the actors tend to concentrate on what they are reading, and the connection with the audience wavers at times. But Adler's zest for the material and the similarities between Trumbo's personality and his own are thoroughly charming. And there's a nice casting balance between the ursine Adler and the wry, understated Miller.

The production, which Adler directed, is quite effective. Despite all the talk, Adler moves his actors well, making good use of Tim Connelly's spacious, sleek set, a Hollywood executive office flanked by two podiums. Jeff Quinn's outstanding lighting design features vivid projections in shades of magenta and aqua that evokes Hollywood's chilly allure. The production is also enhanced by Dennis Diamond's video design played on two large monitors, an effective addition of black-and-white newsreels of the original HUAC hearings, movie clips and press photos, and Trumbo family snapshots.

Trumbowon't be to everyone's taste. All the talk of Hollywood and politics is pretty brainy stuff, and those playgoers unfamiliar with the McCarthy-era/HUAC crisis may find some of the narrative rather opaque. But despite the torrent of words, it's the warmth of the personalities -- of Trumbo, of his son, and of the actors who portray them -- that shines through in this passionate, detailed portrait of an American original.

 
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