Academy Award buffs will recall a dramatic moment in the 1999 Oscar ceremony when 89-year-old Elia Kazan, two-time Best Director winner (for Gentleman’s Agreement and On The Waterfront), was awarded a special lifetime achievement Oscar.  Though Warren Beatty, Kathy Bates, Karl Malden, Meryl Streep and Helen Hunt were among those who gave Kazan a standing ovation, others like Nick Nolte and Ed Harris remained seated, not joining in the applause.  Nolte, Harris, and those who shared their disapproval of the Academy for honoring Kazan remained unforgiving of the octogenarian director for having named names at the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1952. Even forty-seven years later, Kazan’s decision to aid and abet the blacklisting of some two hundred artists for alleged Communist connections was one that could not be forgotten.

The witch hunt which led to the Hollywood blacklist was of course Arthur Miller’s inspiration for writing The Crucible, his classic drama of the very real 1692-3 Salem witch hunts. Playwright Jeffrey Sweet looks back at the ramifications of the HUAC hearings in a more contemporary mode in his three-character drama, The Value Of Names, now getting its third L.A. area production over the past three and a half years, directed by Howard Teichman for the West Coast Jewish Theatre.

Set in 1983 Malibu, The Value Of Names imagines the ramifications of the testimony of a Kazan-like director named Leo Greshen on his friendship with Benny Silverman, an actor whose name Greshen named to the HUAC.  Not surprisingly, the two former friends have remained estranged throughout the three decades following the hearings.  It is Benny’s New York-based actress daughter Norma, currently staying with her dad while rehearsing a play in L.A., who unwittingly brings about the two men’s first meeting in thirty years.  It turns out that the play Norma is rehearsing has recently gotten a new director, none other than her father’s arch nemesis.

Even before learning of the change in directors, Benny is rankled by a pair of choices which his daughter has made. First off, it’s Norma’s decision to change her professional name from Silverman to Teitel, her mother’s maiden name, not to hide her Jewishness or out of any shame in being Benny’s daughter, but simply, she explains, to be able to stand on her own, without her talents always being compared to her father’s.  Secondly, there’s Norma’s decision to appear topless, which she justifies with an “everyone’s doing it” sort of excuse.  Still, these two choices pale in comparison to Norma’s decision to act for the enemy.

Aware that his taking over the reins of Norma’s play may cause her to rethink her participation in it, Leo decides to pay his leading lady a visit.  As might be expected, the person he meets first is Benny.

What follows is an hour of conversation and conflict, a dueling match between the two former friends in which past memories and rancors are reawakened.  Who was right? Who was wrong? Which man deserves an apology? Who should forgive whom?

Playwright Sweet gives no easy answers.  Just as the Elia Kazan Oscar controversy divided Hollywood, so each man has his own story to tell, his own point of view to defend, and while some audience members may take a position as clear-cut as those taken by Beatty or Nolte, others may find themselves as torn as Norma is.  Those in search of simple solutions will not find them here, and not even in the play’s brief epilog.

What audiences will find is intelligent, thought-provoking dialog and fine acting, most notably from the pair of octogenarians who bring the two feuding ex-friends to life.

The careers of Peter Mark Richman and Malachi Throne go back to the early days of live television, indeed to the time of the HUAC hearings and the blacklist.  A 26-year-old Richman appeared as “Young Officer” in a 1953 episode of Suspense and a 30-year-old Throne played Billy Budd in a 1959 DuPont Show Of The Month. Soap fans will recall Richman from his later roles on Santa Barbara, Dynasty, and Beverly Hills 90210.  Throne too has film and TV credits too numerous to count, but for many he will always be remembered for his pair of appearances as Batman villain False Face opposite Adam West and Burt Ward. Richman and Throne are actors whose talents have only grown richer with age, and the performances they give in The Value Of Names are witness to their decades of experience.  For them simply to have mastered this many lines is enough to put young whippersnappers to shame.  Richman’s Benny has fought hard to maintain his dignity over the years, yet he is not above pettiness, even where his beloved daughter is concerned. Throne is a veritable force of nature as Leo, and if reviews of other productions have occasionally found the scales tipped in Benny’s favor, here we have a Leo who can give as good as he gets, and (as I believe Sweet intends us to be) we are torn between the two men just as Benny’s daughter is. Stasha Surdyke does intense, committed work as Benny’s daughter Norma, a woman doing her best to balance her needs as a working actress and her duties as a respectful daughter.

Teichman’s direction brings out the best in his cast.  Perhaps too many speeches are delivered by actors facing the audience rather than the character being spoken to, but the play does take place on the terrace of a Malibu beach home, and the ocean view may be exerting its pull on the speakers. And while on the subject of the beach house in question, it has been beautifully brought to life by scenic designer Jeff G. Rack and lighting designer Ellen Monocroussos. The three characters have been costumed appropriately by designer Dean Cameron.

Since many blacklisted performers were Jewish, The Value Of Names makes for a particularly appropriate choice for WCJT, but the blacklist (and the lessons we can still learn from it) touch everyone. For that reason alone, this is a production well worth seeing and talking about.

Pico Playhouse, 10508 W. Pico Blvd., West Los Angeles.

–Steven Stanley
November 6, 2009
                                                                                       Photo: Michael Lamont

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