By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
Before long, however, the embodiment of that painful era rolls up on PCH in the form of film director Leo Greshen (Michael Durrell), who was Benny’s friend and mentor when they worked in the 1930s with the New Labor Players, and before Leo gave Benny’s name to HUAC as his price of Hollywood stardom. This kind of play, of course, has what might be called The Scene — a verbal settling of accounts between antagonists that alternates between tentative rapprochement, moral debate and generational kvetching. (An entire play and film, The Quarrel, based on a Chaim Grade short story, were hung on such a scene.)
Sure enough, when Leo drops by to talk to his actress, he’s soon left alone with Benny, and the two discuss prostate cancer, the Freedom of Information Act and, inevitably, the ethics of Leo’s long-ago decision. To Sweet’s credit, nothing gets tied up in pink bows; just when reconciliation seems to rear its affable head, Benny spits on Leo’s attempts to bury the past. On the other hand, the play doesn’t seem to know when to get serious and when to lighten up. At times it sounds like one of Benny’s sitcoms, at others it comes across as a Lifetime channel melodrama — with all the attendant stretches in logic. Leo’s spontaneous decision to drop in on Norma in Malibu, for example, makes no sense at all. People in L.A. never drive through traffic without first calling to see if the person they’re visiting is actually home.
There’s also a little historical tweaking that discolors the story. Sweet would have us believe that Benny (and, by implication, others) ran afoul of HUAC simply because he contributed to a Spanish Republican benefit, or perhaps signed a petition to free Tom Mooney. The truth is that most people whose names were given to HUAC had at least briefly belonged to the Communist Party. We’re also led to think that the great sin of Leo, the Elia Kazan–like director, was to give up Benny’s name. In reality, nearly everyone called before the committee gave names (most of which were already known to the committee), but few of them were ever condemned by history. Kazan’s big political mistake was to flaunt his snitching in sanctimonious ads taken out in The New York Times — but since Leo is not implicated in anything like this, it’s difficult to share Benny’s resentment or to understand his abrupt pronouncement to Norma at the very end.
Director Stan Roth gets some convincing scenes from his cast, notably its older principals. Wyner, who bears a resemblance to comedian Larry David, keeps the audience off balance by swinging between Groucho Marx–like banter and moodiness, while Durrell does come across like the kind of climber who mistakes a nagging conscience with a bad case of heartburn.?
LA BÊTE | By DAVID HIRSON | SACRED FOOLS THEATER, 660 N. Heliotrope Dr., Hlywd. | Through July 23 | (310) 281-8337
THE VALUE OF NAMES | By JEFFREY SWEET | FREMONT CENTER THEATER, 1000 Fremont Ave., S. Pasadena | Through July 23 | (866) 811-4111