One of the lamentable aspects of modern American life is the absence of political discourse in public life. "Never talk about politics or religion" goes the old saw, and Americans don't, as a rule, do so in social contexts, and they often go ballistic when artists get political. Apparently being caught red-handed with an opinion is far worse than having none at all. The theater world has steered clear, way clear, of the political arena since the Vietnam era. Plays nowadays may be thoughtful but rarely incendiary, and bold ideas boldly articulated are hard to find.
To the rescue comes the Hollywood Playhouse's current offering, Patriot Acts, which should help to satisfy political junkies looking for some theater with an ideological kick. Artistic Director Andy Rogow serves up a pair of one-act political dramas that assess two of the most politically volatile eras in modern American history: the McCarthy era and our own. The result is a bracing jolt of ideas and raw emotion.
Rogow directs the opening play, The Value of Names, Jeffrey Sweet's long-admired, often-produced 1980s tale of a retired television comedy star, Benny Silverman, who has been blackballed as a former Communist during the notorious hearings before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Benny lives alone in his hilltop Malibu pad with a great view of the Pacific but few job prospects in sight. He's visited by his daughter Norma, a New York actress who's in Los Angeles to star in a play. Norma chafes at always being in Benny's shadow, and she drops some news on him: She's changing her last name to carve out her own identity. Benny's resentful, of course, but things get really ugly when Norma's director falls ill and is replaced by one Leo Greshen, a famous film director who happens to be the man who exposed Benny at the HUAC hearings. Learning Norma's real identity, Leo shows up at Benny's place, and a long-overdue confrontation ensues.
Sweet's story is drawn from real events, and the character of Leo closely resembles that of famed Hollywood director Elia Kazan, who first refused to testify for HUAC, then flip-flopped and named eight Hollywood writers he associated with as a member of the Communist Party in the 1930s. The eight were ostracized from Hollywood while Kazan kept working, but resentment against him simmers to this day. Sweet's script isn't a political polemic, more a philosophical character piece. Benny and Leo's political fight is really part of a larger question -- how to put aside the injustices and sorrows of the past. Should one remember and not forgive? Can one forgive and not forget? Benny can't bring himself to do either. He knows that Leo testified to save his own career, which flowered while Benny's was ruined. But Leo, who hopes to persuade Benny to reconcile, has his own tale of woe, as he has suffered persecution from those who view him as a turncoat and betrayer.
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Daniel P. Steinlauf's Benny is a remote angry man who masks his bitterness with wit and humor. But Steinlauf doesn't bring much subtextual detail to the character. Benny's dilemma isn't merely what he says it is. Leo didn't frame him or lie; his exposure of Benny's past was truthful. And Benny's estrangement from Norma certainly cannot be laid to Leo. Yet Steinlauf, in a competent but superficial performance, doesn't explore these complexities and contradictions. As Leo, Bill Schwartz fares better, but again, there's a certain lack of detail. The ever-reliable Pamela Roza brings assurance to Norma but perhaps too much: The role calls for a young woman in the shadow of her father's personality. Roza's stage presence is so strong, she's not in the shadow of anyone. Rogow directs with a simple visually striking style, while Ian Almeida's modernist set design, an angular, cold, modernist living room, and Travis Neff's simple effective lighting capture the airy emptiness of SoCal beach life.
To fill out the bill, Rogow commissioned South Florida playwright Roger Martin to write a play based on a recent incident in Tampa in which Susan Sarandon was invited to speak at a high-profile charity event only to be "disinvited" at the last minute due to her anti-Iraq War sentiments and statements. Hollywood Playhouse apparently planned to run Martin's play as the curtain-raiser, figuring Sweet's script would be the stronger closer. But what Martin delivered, Words of Mass Deception, packs such a wallop, the order was switched. Sweet's play is thoughtful and carefully wrought but rather tame, while Martin's play is theatrical dynamite.
In a swank hotel reception room, Frank, a suave charity director (Steinlauf) hobnobs with Charles, a powerful industrial magnate (Schwartz) just before the start of a gala charity event. They await the arrival of their keynote speaker, Denise, a famous Hollywood star (Roza). When she arrives, all are gracious and charming until Frank gets to the point. Charles, the charity's principal donor, wants Denise off the program due to her activism. Once that point is made, the gloves come off and a vicious three-way power struggle ensues, to startling and vivid effect. What Martin does here is give voice to the current ideological impasse, and he puts the opposing ideas in the mouths of living characters squaring off in one tense scene. It's a situation that's hard to imagine happening in real life but one that makes for an exciting dramatic ride. The short play rockets along with such passion and momentum, there's hardly a moment to take a breath.
The cast does much better with Martin's firecracker of a script. Roza's charisma works well here, and she's thoroughly plausible as the Ivy League-educated Hollywood star. Steinlauf's Frank is a nice turn, an amiable weakling tiptoeing between selfishness and altruism. As Charles, Schwartz offers charm and a steely core. For once, this stage heavy looks like he can deliver on his threats. Director Marjorie O'Neill-Butler does a good job in steering her cast through the many shifting alliances in this three-way cat fight. None of these characters -- the lefty, the righty, or the fence sitter -- comes away unscathed, though Martin tends to favor Denise's antiwar arguments. Charles' patriotism is revealed to have selfish motives, as does Frank's altruism. Denise is accused of media manipulation, but a clearer examination of her own selfish motives might give the play more balance. Still, Martin's saber-sharp dialogue slices and slashes right to the core of America's current crisis, where civil political debate is impossible, where protest is called treason, and neither side will listen to the other.
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