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LETTERS TO EDITOR
|A CurtainUp Review
Not all the writers known as the Hollywood Ten applauded Trumbo's view that the informants were as much victims of this dark period in history as those whose careers were eclipsed. But Dalton Trumbo was, like his frontier forefathers, an individualist, a man who more committed to free speech than any organization. He also brought the frontier man's vitality and energy to his work. Despite imprisonment and blacklisting (which forced him to use front men instead of his own by-line) he left a large legacy of influential films that included Kitty Foyle, Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo , Exodus, Spartacus, Roman Holiday, The Brave One and Gun Crazy. He also wrote novels, Johnny Get Your Gun, being the best known, and a treasure trove of letters. It is from these letters that his son, Christopher Trumbo, has created a theater piece that not only documents still relevant events, but fully and entertainingly brings to life the feisty wit and humanity of one man who was caught up in them.
The play's foundation stones are the letters, with the late writer's on stage alter ego reading them (Nathan Lane until September 21st and thereafter with rotating stars). Some of the most memorable are what you might call the Father letters: an outraged letter to the school that tarred and feathered his young daughter's psyche with the same brush that wiped out her father's career . . . and a priceless epistle accompanying a brown wrapper packed copy of Dr. Albert Ellis's Sex Without Guilt which he found "a fresh new approach to subject of masturbation - a fresh new wind under the sheets, so to speak. . . " There are also missiles fired off to creditors, foes, and colleagues, one of the most amusing in the last category being a lengthy epistle to Ring Lardner Jr. about an in-the-works critique of a book on which he wanted Trumbo's opinion.
With the letters as stage props there's no need to memorize the text but since Trumbo wrote essay-like, meaty letters this is very much an acting rather than reading performance. Nathan Lane's delivery of the text is splendidly nuanced, transitioning seamlessly between wry humor, irony, bewilderment and passion. Director Peter Askin does allow Lane some shtik, as when the letter accompanying the Albert Ellis book prompts him to act out his own youthful attempt to control his private sexual habits, but the actor never upstages his character.
The one-way nature of the correspondence and tethering the actor to a desk so he can read from the script does make for a static situation. The playwright circumvents this with a secondary character, a stand-in for himself to act as narrator, and at one point as a government interrogator in an acted out replay of Trumbo's appearance before the House Unamerican Committee (Gordon MacDonald giving a likeable, understated performance). To further enhance the theatricality, there are two screens for authentic film clips (a few more would have been in order), Loy Arcenas' handsome set that accommodates a trial setting as well as book-lined study Jeff Croiter's warm lighting to accompany the shifting moods and settings.
Wearing a blue pin-striped suit and with his typical slicked-down hair with its ruler straight part, Lane makes no effort to look more like Trumbo-- nor does the production make a big deal of his habit of lolling in the bathtub where he was said to spend many working hours. But Trumbo comes to vivid life nevertheless. The portrait may have some of the personality warts air brushed out by a loving son. Some of the adjectives with Ring Lardner Jr. described Trumbo -- "greedy, vain, ruthless, devious, shortsighted"-- are mentioned but the emphasis is on . . . and "altruisticc." Eyxcellent as Lane's performance is, it's easy to see that Trumbo has enough substance to be worth seeing with the other stars who will rotate in the part after his September 21st departure (as the likes of Ed Harris and Tim Robbins already did during a brief, previous Monday night run) -- shades of this theater's recent tenant, The Vagina Monlogues.
The blacklists erased Dalton Trumbo's by-line for too many years. Even if the tables had not been turned and the HUAC committee discredited while the disenfranchised Hollywood Ten were once again given their due, it's clear that Dalton Trumbo was always recognized as a great dad by his son.
Mendes at the Donmar
At This Theater
Leonard Maltin's 2003 Movie and Video Guide
Ridiculous!The Theatrical Life & Times of Charles Ludlam
Somewhere For Me, a Biography of Richard Rodgers
The New York Times Book of Broadway: On the Aisle for the Unforgettable Plays of the Last Century
6, 500 Comparative Phrases including 800 Shakespearean Metaphors by CurtainUp's editor.
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