There are many maxims about theater, but none is truer than this: Casting is everything. Even a major play can seem small if the actors are wrong. Conversely, the right actors can make a minor work soar. So it is that in New Jewish Theatre's current production, The Value of Names, a story of friendship lost during the plague years of the Hollywood blacklist, two actors elevate the piece into an evening greater than its parts. It's as if Peter Mayer and Bobby Miller have spent all their lives preparing for these two roles.
The play is set in 1983. In the opening scene, we meet Benny Silverman, a gifted (if curmudgeonly) comic actor who prospered on a TV sitcom. Benny's actress daughter Norma (Elana Kepner) is eager to know more about her father's travails in the 1950s when he was blacklisted after having been named as a Communist by his former friend, the acclaimed director Leo Greshen. Norma periodically must step out of the action to serve double duty as the play's narrator, a clumsy device, and in this opening scene, Jeffrey Sweet's 1983 drama feels lifeless.
But the dynamics change after Leo takes over the direction of a production in which Norma is cast. Should she quit out of loyalty to her father? Leo's surprise visit to Norma (who is staying at Dad's stylish Malibu home) soon morphs into an awkward reunion with Benny. Norma leaves the two men to confront the past. At this point The Value of Names finds a pulse. Within a few minutes, no longer are we listening to actors; now we're eavesdropping. The heated conversation feels spontaneous, not rehearsed. It is a joy to watch actors step on each other's lines — not because they've honed the dialogue to a fine polish, but because each actor intimately knows the other's breathing patterns.
At the same time, The Value of Names feels disquietingly neat. The Hollywood blacklist (whose tentacles reached beyond Hollywood to cripple the entire entertainment industry) extended from 1947 to 1962. Thousands of lives were affected. But as the decades have passed, that gray, murky time has been reduced to black and white, hero and villain. Director Elia Kazan, who in 1952 went through the motions of naming eight names that already were known to the House Committee on Un-American Activities, has come to personify the betrayal, cowardice and opportunism that flowed freely during those anarchic years. We can assume that Leo is modeled after Kazan. Peter Mayer's rueful Leo persuasively captures the coiled-spring tension that defined Kazan, right down to the slick shine on his shoes. The unforgiving Benny seems to be standing in for blacklisted actor-turned-painter Zero Mostel (whom Kazan did not name). Bobby Miller brings a comic perspective to all of Benny's lines, even those that are least amusing.
But we should not take these parallels too far. Mostel's blacklisting was actually delayed by more than a year when Kazan persuaded 20th Century Fox to cast him against type in Panic in the Streets (1950). And those who continue to romantically obsess over the blacklist era tend to forget that Kazan's testimony was not his greatest sin. Two days after that testimony, Kazan bought extensive space in the New York Times to defend his decision to name names. It was this defiant newspaper essay that turned the arts community so overwhelmingly against him.
None of this is referenced in The Value of Names because, thanks to the cushion of dissembling, fiction need not be bound by the facts. Instead we get a cogent debate about matters of ethics and conscience. Better than that, even, we get a lesson that cannot be taught in an acting class: the value of friendship. It is a privilege to watch Miller and Mayer strut their stuff.
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