Story: Benny Silverman spends his days painting canvasses on a patio that overlooks the Pacific Ocean from his handsome home in Malibu. In earlier days he was a successful and well-known entertainer until his one-time friend and colleague, Leo Greshen, testified against him before the House Committee on Un-American Activities and its crusade against communists in America. That act by Greshen effectively stifled Benny’s career for years before he eventually landed a starring role on a TV comedy titled Rich but Happy that earned him enough money to pay for his Malibu manse and paint away his bitter days.
Now, some 30 years later, Benny’s daughter Norma is an aspiring young actress who wants to make her own mark on Hollywood. So much so that she has changed her stage moniker from Silverman to her mother’s maiden name. This unexpected tribute to his ex-wife doesn’t sit well with the outspoken, cantankerous Benny, but it pales in comparison with Norma’s other news: She’s been cast in a new play to be directed by Leo. She ponders the relative merits of accepting the role and what it might mean for her career, with or without her father’s approval. However, the stakes are raised substantially when Leo unexpectedly arrives at Benny’s home to personally implore Norma to take the part. Perhaps, too, he’s there to learn whether Benny is in a forgiving mood after three decades of their strained relationship.
Highlights: Originally commissioned by the Actors’ Theatre of Louisville for its 1983 season, this one-act drama by Jeffrey Sweet is heavily influenced by the real-life testimony of noted director/producer/writer/actor Elia Kazan. At the height of his career, both on Broadway and in Hollywood, Kazan was called by Senator Joseph McCarthy and his denizens as a “friendly witness” to name associates in the entertainment world who had belonged to the American communist party at one time, just as Kazan had. That act led to severed relationships for Kazan with numerous colleagues until his death at age 94 in 2003.
Sweet’s 75-minute story probes the lingering effects of such testimony on both the accuser and the accused, something director Alec Wild pinpoints with deadly accuracy in the current New Jewish Theatre presentation. With fine performances by Bobby Miller, Peter Mayer and Elena Kepner, this absorbing tale offers substantial food for thought not only for its historic references but, indeed, for anyone who has ever felt deeply wronged or betrayed by a trusted friend.
Other Info: While production notes allude to Arthur Miller as the prototype for Benny, an entertainer such as Mort Sahl seems more realistic than a writer like Miller for the role’s inspiration. Regardless, actors Miller and Mayer do consummate work showing us both their common history but also their widely divergent paths in the wake of Leo’s betrayal of Benny.
Indeed, while Leo dances around directly asking for Benny’s forgiveness, in part by referencing what others he wronged have done in subsequent years, this drama and any unsettled moral decisions rests squarely with Benny. It’s fascinating to watch Miller as Benny offer a beer to his one-time trusted colleague but equally compelling to see him slowly reveal how the theft of his own name and reputation has robbed him of fulfillment for decades. Simultaneously, Mayer effectively conveys both Leo’s resiliency to flourish in the aftermath of what he did to several of his friends but also his indirect approach for the forgiveness he covets.
Kepner completes the cast with the under-stated role of Norma. Her primary function is to set the table for the titanic confrontation between her father and her would-be director, and she does so convincingly in her somewhat spare role.
Dunsi Dai’s set design is clean and spare, with a handsome image of the blue Pacific Ocean beyond Benny’s comfortable patio and chic back entrance into his home. Maureen Berry’s lighting supports that look and feel, as do Robert Van Dillen’s props and Teresa Doggett’s costumes.
Sweet uses the provocative acts and lingering consequences of an infamous part of American history to probe a more universal and ongoing concept: How does an individual deal with grievous wrongs, both real and imagined, perpetrated by once trusted friends and confidantes? Just as with life itself, the answers are myriad and mystifying in searching for moral conclusions. And, as it’s been written, to forgive is divine.
Play: The Value of Names
Group: New Jewish Theatre
Venue: Wool Theatre, Jewish Community Center, 2 Millstone Campus Drive
Dates: March 21, 22, 24, 25, 28, 29, 31, April 1
Tickets: From $35.50 to $39.50; contact 442-3283 or newjewishtheatre.org
Rating: A 4 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photos courtesy of John Lamb