Two time Tony-winner Brian Dennehy performs as advertised in Christopher Trumbo's memorial to his late father, Dalton. His effort is at once the main virtue and major failing of this production visiting the new Calderwood Pavilion for the next month. The presentational book-in-hand style of the script, adapted mostly from Trumbo Sr.'s correspondence, allows Dennehy to present a fair and honest reading of the old man without getting too deeply into his character. This is quite in line with the New York run of this piece, which besides Dennehy starred F. Murray Abraham, Nathan Lane, Richard Dreyfuss, Tim Robbins, and Alec Baldwin. The result is that while the audience can enjoy the wordcraft, they don't quite get to know the author, especially since there's no material from his actual work. Certainly there might be difficulties getting rights to movie script material given the still sensitive issues surrounding the blacklist, but something must be available. Text from his novels, especially "Johnny Got His Gun" would also give a sense of his true abilities.
Be that as it may, Dennehy and William Zielinski standing in for Christopher present a brisk account of the screenwriter's life. Under Peter Ashkins unpretentious direction, Trumbo's career from the first HUAC hearings in 1947, which resulted in Trumbo's incarceration for contempt of Congress in 1951 to his rehabilitation more than a decade later is illuminated. The fact that the screenwriter accomplished as much as he did without ever caving in to the system is the source of much of the action in this 90 minute piece. The sedentary nature of the show--both actors spend much of the time seated--is alleviated somewhat by Loy Arcenas elegantly simple set, with projection screens on either side for video segments taken from the HUAC hearings designed by Dennis Diamond plus stills of the Hollywood 10 and list of the over 200 prominent figures who suffered under the blacklist. Original music and a soundscape by John Gromada helps with the continuity while Jeff Croiter's lighting provides additional mood, texture, and atmosphere. A bare stage performance of this piece would probably seem interminable.
The letters quoted during the piece range from acerbic exchanges with a contractor to a moving eulogy written to the mother of a young writer he encountered while they were serving as war correspondents in the Pacific. This last is easily the most dramatic of the evening and comes closest to revealing Trumbo's basic character. The most memorable of course is "the letter" written to his son at Columbia extolling the virtues of Dr. Albert Ellis Ph.D. And as a finale his speech when accepting the Laurel Award for lifetime achievement from the Screen Writers Guild is the clearest statement of his political philosophy and why he was "Red, White & Blacklisted"--the show's subttitle. It's a reminder to his peers then and audiences now that here was a Colorado-born American, who knocked about during the Depression doing whatever menial jobs came his way. After becoming a newsman and screenwriter became a war correspondent. During the whole sorry era of HUAC he held his ground, leaving prison at the same time Dashiell Hammet was admitted for his refusal to cooperate. And as he next remines his fellow guild members, the award hes been given was originally named for Robert Meltzer, an SWG member who died as a war correspondent but whose name simply came up during the hearings, at which point the honor was renamed.
Dennehy and others in the industry will probably continue to do this piece, not so much for its dramatic virtues, but for the real need to remind the entertainment industry that commercial timidity can be its own worst enemy. Witness the recent PBS flap over "Postcards from Buster" or the GOP billboard just erected to taunt Hollywood elements to came out against the reelection of the administration. Perhaps the passing of Arthur Miller will serve to remind a wider audience of his refusal to "name names" as well. While Dennehy says that he does not in fact agree with Trumbo's political opinions, which are barely touched on in the play, one may expect to hear this actor continue to defend the American right to freedom of political expression. Dennehy has been preparing for a revival of "Death of a Salesman" in London this May, which should result in some interesting commentary on both sides of the pond.
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