What if bygones are never bygones? What happens to a man, betrayed by a friend, who seethes in anger and bitterness for the next 30 years? And what happens to that former friend who has, ostensibly, “put the past behind him,” but has to live with the ineradicable knowledge of that betrayal and the shadow it casts over the rest of his life?
This is the premise of Jeffrey Sweet’s new play, “The Value of Names,” an extraordinarily intelligent, insightful polemic about the consequences of the destructive HUAC witch-hunt of the 1950s, set in 1983 in the Malibu home of once-famed actor and youthful activist, Benny Silverman (the inimitable Peter Mark Richman). As he paints the scene from his patio (and Richman himself has had some 17 one-man exhibitions of his art work), Benny argues with his daughter Norma, who wants to change her last name. Not because her father was one of those blacklisted by the House Un-American Activities Committee, and not because the name is “too Jewish,” but because she, as an actress, is continually being compared to him.
To make matters even more stressful, Norma (Stasha Surdyke) has landed a career-building role in a play to be directed by Leo Greshen (Malachi Throne), her father’s old nemesis. Like the Holocaust survivors of the 1940s who never told their children about their wartime experiences, Benny has never discussed his political past and his blacklisting with Norma. He doesn’t think it’s right, he says, “to go around bludgeoning other people with your suffering.”
Norma, however, has done her own research and knows her father’s history, including the reason for his severed relationship with Leo Greshen. At this point, theatergoers will recognize Greshen as a doppelganger of infamous director Elia Kazan, who also “named names” before the committee. And Norma, aware of her father’s sensitivities, is considering whether to give up her role in Greshen’s play.
At this point, Greshen arrives on the scene to urge Norma not to leave the play, and he and Benny confront each other for the first time in three decades. The discussion they engage in is sometimes funny, sporadically warmly reminiscent, but infallibly political, moral, self-righteous, and confrontational. Benny reminds Leo of how “we had a purpose — a reason.” Leo accuses Benny of “romanticizing the persecuted,” adding that “the highest virtue is survival.” And Benny rails, “You took what belonged to me to buy yourself a license to work!”
The three actors in “The Value of Names” are singularly talented, but under the strong direction of Howard Teichman they become more than the sum of their parts. They are caught up in a point of time that has transformed them all, in one way or another. And what’s even more captivating is that playwright Sweet makes little attempt to explain the circumstances behind this riveting play. (He doesn’t even elaborate on why Benny refuses to have any music by Wagner in his home.) He assumes that the audience is educated and intelligent and knowledgeable about such things, including the historical background that this play is dealing with. And how many modern playwrights have the chutzpah to deal with their audience in that way?
“The Value of Names,” a production of The West Coast Jewish Theater, will continue at the Pico Playhouse, 10508 W. Pico Blvd. in Los Angeles Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 and 7 p.m. through Nov. 22. Call (323) 506-8024 for reservations.
Cynthia Citron can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.