If a man commits a moral crime against his best friend and torments himself with that secret for more than 50 years, is it necessary — or even appropriate — for his children to sit in judgment and literally destroy him — and the lifetime friendship?
That’s the dilemma posed by Allan Manings’ new play ”Goodbye, Louie … Hello!” now having its world premiere at Theatre West in Hollywood.
It’s yet another story about the House Un-American Activities Committee witch-hunt in the 1950s and the black list of the entertainment industry that followed. As usual, it’s a fascinating story that bears repeating, and this one, though familiar, is well told.
Louie Berns (a histrionic Alan Freeman) is the haunted comedian who “named names” to the committee, and the name he named was that of his best friend and comic partner, Benjy Gordon (beautifully played by Steve Franken).
In return for his testimony, Louie’s participation was kept hidden, and he went on to a long and successful career on his own television show and in nightclubs, theater, and films. Benjy, on the other hand, wound up in obscurity without ever knowing why. Louie, out of love as well as guilt, has “looked after” his friend through the years and made sure Benjy always had some role in all his (Louie’s) theatrical ventures.
Now the two men, both widowers, are about to part. Louie is determined to move from New York to an “active adult community” in Arizona that he chose largely because it didn’t have an obfuscating name like “Golden Sunset Villas.” And he wants Benjy to come with him. But Benjy is adamant. “Arizona?” he says. “That’s just like New Jersey, only with cactus!”
When Benjy questions why a lifelong New Yorker would want to move to the Wild West, Louie counters by claiming that his grandfather was “the Wyatt Earp of the Ukraine.”
The two men are very funny together, and like all the old-time vaudevillians, they have impeccable timing. As Louie says, “The first rule is to be funny. Funny has a long shelf life.” The challenge with facing an audience, he adds, “is getting them all to laugh at the same things.”
The challenge facing Louie, however, is his aging memory. Ironically, the man who “named names” now has trouble remembering anyone’s name. But he vividly remembers the past, which comes and goes in flashes.
The plot thickens when Louie’s two grown children show up. The obvious favorite is the daughter, Amy (Maria Kress), who kvetches over her father as if she were his mother. The son, Scott (Paul Denniston), is seething with resentment and anger because he has chosen to become an actor rather than a lawyer, and he is well aware of his father’s disappointment in him.
Being a show business family, the children have grown up with Louie’s mantra, Polonius’ speech to his son, Laertes: “This above all, to thine own self be true …” And now they are putting their father’s feet to the fire. It’s time for him to be true to his mantra. Whether the penalty is worth the price it exacts is up to you to decide.
And while Freeman and Denniston, as father and son, are a little over the top from time to time, Director John Gallogly has managed to make the actors believable; they make an engaging drama out of what is essentially a rather thin story line.
“Goodbye, Louie … Hello!” will run Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m.through May 8 at Theatre West, 3333 Cahuenga Blvd. West, in Hollywood. Call (323) 851-7977 for reservations.
Cynthia Citron can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.