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A CurtainUp Review

Here's what your ticket to Names will buy you:

—An old-fashioned play in the sense that you'll hear seven very bright theater luminaries exchanging clever repartee on such always timely topics as acting, the theater, freedom of speech, love and friendship.
—A cozily stylish set to evoke one of the legendary hangouts of the intelligentsia, the Algonquin hotel. The carefully scaled mahogany bar and furniture, set designer William Barclay has managed to give the claustrophobic stage of the American Jewish an almost spacious feel.
—A glimpse of-- (or, if you're old enough, a look back) a famous political witch hunt--the House Un-American Activities committee's (HUAC) investigation of Communists in government and Hollywood-- and its effect on the above-mentioned septet. As a cautionary tale about how even in a democracy enough people can be scared into accepting totalitarian acts, such stories always bear re-telling. br>
All the above, plus a heartwarming subplot centering on a star struck bellhop who is a lot wiser at the end of the play than at the beginning!

What links these people together is that they were all part of the legendary Group Theater, a sort of intellectual theatrical kibbutz whose best known production was Clifford Odets' Waiting For Lefty. The dramatic device that brings them to the Algonquin in April of 1952, (years after the Group Theater dissolved), is a telegram bearing the signature of director Elia Kazan. A summons from Kazan is like a command. So, one-by-one, the luminaries assemble: Actor John Garfield (John C. Mooney); Nation critic Harold Clurman (Robert Ari); Clifford Odets (Joel Polis); acting teacher Lee Strasberg (Lee Wilkof), actor Luther Adler (Clayton Landey); his sister and Clurman's wife, Stella Adler (Tova Feldshuh); and eventually, Kazan (Paul Lieber).

It's a little like Hercules Poirot calling all the suspects together to name the guilty person. Except, in this case everyone's worried that Kazan, who's been called before the infamous Committee, will name his friends and colleagues whose only crime was to be briefly caught up in political idealism of the 1930s. Those named by Kazan will in turn be asked to "cooperate" by naming others. The alternative is to have your name on the blacklist and thereby kiss your dreams of working in Hollywood or the theater goodbye. No wonder everyone's on edge. Right in the room with them is John Garfield, a ravaged wreck after a year of being blacklisted. Outside the hotel, a noisy crowd is demonstrating against José Ferrer's new film because of his Communist past

Since the meeting we witness didn't actually happen, playwright-director Mark Kemble, took enough license to add a few fillips, notably the coming of age experience of the bellhop, who assumes a pen name that would be more fitting for his ambitions as a playwright. As played by Gordon Greenberg Manny Damski, the only non-name character is this play's most endearing and affecting character--a young man with more dimension to his nebbish persona than some of the more flamboyant big names he so admires.

That's not to say there aren't other excellent performances. John Mooney's Garfield gets the actor's idealism and despair just right. Clifford Odets seems ready to blow up before our eyes. The scene in which he strip searches the hapless Manny is one of the more dramatic moments in an often over-talky evening.

Tova Feldshuh captures Stella Adler's haughtiness and throws in a generous dash of the somewhat over-the-top schmaltziness her fans love. She also looks stunning in a white lace blouse though her beige mink cape, while very much of the era, has too much of a Ritz thrift shop look. Both Feldshuh and Robert Ari, who plays her partner in a rocky marriage, have some fine moments together. However, despite some sharp one liners, Ari never quite makes us see Harold Clurman as the most brilliant, witty and educated member of this group.

Lee Wilkoff's Lee Strasberg is less a man passionate about the theater than a petulant kvetch. But his kvetching is highly amusing. In addition to the turbulence about communism, April also marks the beginning of the baseball season --(a symbol of hope at a time with much to feel hopeless about?)--so Strasberg is more involved listening to the radio than the conversation around him. As he puts it: "At least there's some consistency in baseball. I get up and I know the Dodgers will be playing. . .in Brooklyn.">

Clayton Landey as the other actor in the room, Stella's brother Luther Adler, is as practical about his career as John Garfield is not. Paul Liebert as the late arrival to the "party" is a believable Elia Kazan--the only character on this stage who's still alive, and still living with the consequences of his role in this debacle.

All in all, I enjoyed Names even though by the time the actors leave the stage--(neatly reversing the order of their arrival), none except Garfield and Manny really engaged me emotionally. If they had, I probably wouldn't even have noticed a factual flaw such as the statement (I think it was by Odets), "They're even going after the army now"--which, confuses the HUAC Committee with the equally appalling McCarthy hearings.

Perhaps to make its fullest emotional impact a play about the effects of taking the path of expedience over principle, would need to divorce itself from specific surroundings and facts. But then that's already been done by a man named Arthur Miller.

Written and directed by Mark Kemble
Cast: Robert Ari, Gordon Greenberg, Clayton Landey, Paul Lieber, John C. Mooney, Joel Polis, Tovah Feldshuh,Lee Wilkof
William Barclay, Set Designer
Gail Cooper Hecht, Costume Designer
Phil Monat, Lighting Designer
Red Ramona, Sound Designer
American Jewish Theatre, 307 West 26th Street
From March 01, 1997

The Broadway Theatre Archive

©Copyright, Elyse Sommer, 1997
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