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Friday, 16 March 2012 17:34

What’s in a name?

Written by Andrea Braun

The Details

What’s in a name? / John Lamb

Leo Greshen (Peter Mayer) sets up a kind of private Yom Kippur on Benny Silverman’s (Bobby Miller) lavish deck overlooking Malibu. But while it’s clear from Miller’s performance that Benny was once a great comic actor, he’s not much of a Jew.

Leo is obliquely seeking absolution for a long-ago betrayal of Silverman, but Benny’s nowhere near ready to forgive in Jeffrey Sweet’s superficial account of the witch hunts engineered by our government during the 1940s and ‘50s, "The Value of Names".

So, according to the Torah, Leo will never be fully absolved because the victim must forgive the perpetrator before God can. And there’s the rub: Leo pretends he’s fine with the fact that he betrayed Benny 30 years back before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC, established in 1938) as one with communist ties. Those who remember or think of the 1950s as painted by Norman Rockwell are wrong. There was a wider brush and the paint was Russian red. Sen. Joseph McCarthy (R. Wis.) managed to stir up an audience by falsely claiming that he had on his person the names of over 200 “known communists” in public life. Thus, the movement to seek out and destroy U.S. communism became known as “McCarthyism,” though the senator himself was ultimately proven to be lying.

Many witnesses were called by HUAC to confess their own involvement in communist front activities and name the names of others. One was Elia Kazan, famed director, later author, who was headed for Hollywood when he telephoned and told his friend and collaborator, playwright Arthur Miller, that he planned to corroborate some names of mutual friends and co-workers the committee already had on a list of party members. Kazan had recently made his first deal to direct a Hollywood movie and he wanted to protect that deal. He was enormously successful in New York as the director of "Death of a Salesman" and "Streetcar Named Desire", among others, but the big money was in the movies. As a young man in New York City in the 1930s, Kazan had been a part of the Group Theatre which was predicated on socialist principles and dealt with social issues. Leo and Benny belonged to such a company in their youth, called the “New Labor Theatre” in the play.

Kazan quickly tired of the movement when he found it to be as elitist as that which it protested, and he resigned from the party, an action replicated by Leo. Miller, who had never been a party member in the first place, was nevertheless disturbed by his friend’s actions and cut him off for a while. He wrote "The Crucible" and "A View From the Bridge" based on the issues of betrayal and the “value of names.” The background material suggests that the Kazan/Miller event is the impetus for this play, which is a stretch. Miller wasn’t personally harmed by Kazan’s action, as Benny is by Leo’s, so the only thing the two situations really have in common is that phone call in advance of the testimony. For what it’s worth, Elia Kazan was also not Jewish; rather he was raised in the Greek Orthodox Church, so by his faith, he was not obligated to seek forgiveness from anyone other than God.

"The Value of Names" was written and set in the early 1980s. The first action is between Benny and his daughter, Norma (Elana Kepner), who tells him she’s planning to change her name. She doesn’t want to always be identified as “Benny Silverman’s daughter” when she goes up for a part or is reviewed. Her parents had an acrimonious divorce, so not only is Benny hurt that his daughter is disowning him in a way, but that she has chosen to take her mother’s maiden name as her own. There is also a moment flashing back to when Norma was 15 and learned about her father’s blacklisting from "TV Guide". She is hurt and confused that this vital bit of information about him was withheld from her. Benny insists she didn’t need to know because it was before she was born and didn’t involve her. She doesn’t share that opinion.

Mostly Norma talks to Benny, but she occasionally speaks to the audience to further explain what’s going on. That’s good, because it’s not always clear, and transitions tend to be awkward. Back to their present: Norma has a role in a play under her new name which calls for upper body nudity. Benny shows his comic chops as he riffs on “boobies” and “tits” being displayed “in good taste” and in the service of “Art.” Still, they settle that issue, more or less, then the boom is lowered when her director becomes ill and is replaced with Leo whose testimony resulted in Benny’s being unable to work in Hollywood until years later when he makes his fortune as a supporting player in a long-running but little respected sitcom. Norma can’t decide whether to quit out of loyalty to her father or stay for her own career advancement.

Enter Leo. He has come to Benny’s house purportedly to talk Norma into staying. Mayer plays Leo with the cocky arrogance we’ve been told Kazan possessed (even by Kazan himself in his autobiography). These two guys are now in their sixties and Benny does seem old as he putters around his beach house painting endless pictures of the ocean. Leo is still energetic, and the two actors make the most of their physical contrasts. Leo claims he feels no guilt for what he has done, that their other mutual friend whom he named and he have reconciled, and that he doesn’t understand why Benny won’t let go of his grudge. For his part, Benny has trouble believing that Leo would even come to his house. In the best part of the play, the two old “frenemies” reminisce about the good parts of the past, but they also explore their negative feelings and cynicism about the ideals of their youth.

It’s hard to say how much depends on Alec Wild’s direction and how much these two veteran actors who have worked together before develop their own rhythm. Mayer’s part is one-dimensional, so he doesn’t get to show much of what he can do, and Kepner is little more than a catalyst. It’s Miller’s show, and he manages to elevate it beyond its TV movie feel to an entertaining evening of theatre by the sheer force of his personality, expressions and impeccable timing. But in the end, Benny comes off like a grumpy old man with an unexpected, though hardly explosive as the ads would have us believe, curtain line.

Dunsi Dai’s set is, as always, appropriate, and Maureen Benny’s lights give an impression of Malibu light. Healy Rodman’s wardrobe is unremarkable, except for the “Miami Vice” look Leo sports. Overall, if this is an audience’s introduction to this shameful chapter in American history, it’s insufficient. Allusions are made to real people and occurrences. There are some very good one-liners, though a certain amount of cultural knowledge on the audience’s part is assumed. The funniest punch line in the show, to me anyway, didn’t even land. It caps a story about a guy both Benny and Leo know who went in the hospital for surgery on a uniquely male body part. He gave his name as “Jake Barnes.” Also, nobody reacted when Leo tossed off a line about an interview with a French journalist being “that structuralist crap.” He pretends not to know, though, why everyone wants to give him the opportunity to apologize for what he did or won’t talk about it at all, as happened when he was giving a lecture upon receipt of an honorary doctorate. Leo, as Kazan did, justifies his actions by the important awards he has won and the acknowledged excellence of his work. But underneath, he does desperately want the one he wronged to forgive him and he does talk about the old days at great length with Benny.

In Sweet’s play talk is what they do and that’s a quibble I have with the direction: the tendency for a character to plant himself and hold forth. Norma donning a sweater is what passes for action here, and even though the running time is only 70 minutes, the piece, can still seem long at times because it’s static. In the end, as Benny would say, it’s just not enough.

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