Sweet Smell of Excess

Playwright Jeffrey Sweet gives a great lecture. I heard him speak when he was in town recently to lead a playwrighting workshop, and I filled my notebook with useful maxims and seasoned insights provided by this articulate theater professional. He poked holes in the assumption that one's personal life provides fodder for good writing by noting that "autobiographical writing is dangerous." And for the budding playwright determined to compose an issue-oriented drama, he offered this advice: "The worst way to start a play is to start off with a grand theme."

Sweet's visit coincided with the local opening of his interrelated plays George's File and The Value of Names. The plays, inspired by actual experiences of actors blacklisted in Hollywood, examine the continuing fallout of the 1950s McCarthy era on contemporary lives. Excited by Sweet's talk, I looked forward to seeing his work come alive at New Theatre in Coral Gables. Now I think it might be better not to hear a playwright discuss his work before seeing it.

In both George's File and The Value of Names, Sweet heeds his own warning about autobiographical writing, but he ignores his advice concerning the avoidance of grand themes. George's File, a monologue that precedes the longer Value of Names, succeeds despite Sweet's rhetorical preachiness because of its economical length and an intelligent and moving performance by Edna Schwab. On the other hand, The Value of Names suffers from an overdose of lofty ideas. The wordy script lacks dramatic tension, while clinically dispensing information about the mean-spirited politics of the early 1950s (frighteningly similar to today's politics). The play's three characters serve as mouthpieces for conveying that data, requiring the actors to breathe dimension into their roles that the language doesn't afford. In the version of the play I saw, actors Lisa Friedman, Bill Hindman, and Bill Yule never transcended the polemics that inhibit the script. (In an intriguing experiment, Hindman and Yule alternate the male roles with each new performance, resulting, so I've been told, in two contrasting productions of the same material.)

In George's File, June, a recent widow, stumbles upon her husband's government records. Addressing the audience as she rifles through the file's pages, June reflects upon the damage incurred between friends during the dark 1950s, raising questions about privacy, loyalty, and betrayal, while simultaneously evoking a collective sense of hurt in the Hollywood community of that period. Edna Schwab's portrayal of June blends indignation with derision A that is, until she discovers George's love letters to her, copied by the FBI, at the back of the file. As June's ire turns into sadness, Schwab astutely conveys the complexity of a long-term marriage and the sense of loss at its end.

The Value of Names picks up the monologue's themes of allegiance and duplicity, runs with them for a few city blocks, but very quickly starts huffing and puffing. The overly long one-act play tells the story of Norma (Friedman), a young actress who changes her name to avoid being typecast as the daughter of Benny Silverman (Hindman, the night I saw it), a famous film actor who made a comeback in a TV sit-com years after he'd been blacklisted. If his daughter's name change causes the curmudgeonly Benny to feel rejected, it's nothing compared to the sting of finding out that Norma's new director is Leo Greshen (Yule), the former friend who named Benny before the House Un-American Activities Committee. When the two old dogs who refuse to learn new tricks meet for the first time in years, they bark at each other and dig up old aches and pains.

During those moments, the energy of this endless-talk-that-says-nothing drama picks up. But their animated burst doesn't sustain itself, as a result of long-winded writing, unfocused direction, and actors who don't always connect. The potent ideas floating through the script beg to be distilled into a drama a quarter the length of this one; director John Soliday has not decided from whose point of view to tell the story; and the actors, perhaps owing to the confusion of switching roles A an interesting idea in theory A stew in their individual pots of love, hate, and resentment, without convincingly making contact with one another. Friedman's Norma furnishes the most glaring example of this. Smiling uncomfortably through nearly the entire production, the actress placates her stage father with far too much sweetness and tolerance, as if he's a stranger she's insistent on not offending.

A smart writer, a talented cast, a theater with an exciting reputation A seems like a recipe for success. But not this time.

For a drama with endless talk that speaks volumes, see A.R. Gurney's Love Letters, currently at the Coconut Grove Playhouse Known as a chronicler of WASP society and its rituals in plays such as The Dining Room and The Cocktail Hour, Gurney's work offers a satirical, insider's view of upper-middle-class Northeasterners. Love Letters commemorates the lifelong friendship between Andrew Makepeace Ladd III and Melissa Gardner A through their letters to each other. The drama requires the actors playing Andy and Melissa to read 40 years' worth of correspondence. Within this deceptively simple structure, Gurney's richly detailed writing manages to take us on an insightful, affectionate, and passionate journey through two lives.

Easily staged, Love Letters has enjoyed productions all over the world since its 1988 debut, and each pair of the many actors who have played Andy and Melissa brought to it a distinct interpretation. The accomplished team of Eli Wallach and Anne Jackson, married to each other in real life for 46 years, sit side by side at two writing desks. Facing the audience without ever looking at each other directly, they reveal themselves through postcards, invitations, announcements, "drippy Xeroxed letters," as Melissa calls them, "that congratulate yourself on all your accomplishments," and even through silences.

Skillfully using subtlety and nuance, Jackson and Wallach allow the audience not only to feel but to see the images and incidents of their lives A despite the physically static nature of the piece. Jackson is by turns feisty, crude, scathing, and needy as Melissa, elegant even as she slips in and out of hospitals and drinking bouts, and always amusingly self-aware. Alternately pinch-faced and bewildered-looking as he follows the conventional road instead of his heart, Wallach's Andy seems an exasperated match for Melissa, except that he understands Melissa so well, and she him. Jackson and Wallach's interpretation of Love Letters resonates with the ache of life's missed opportunities.

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