"Who steals my purse steals trash; 'tis something, nothing;
'Twas mine, 'tis his, and has been slave to thousands;
But he that filches from me my good name
The Value of Names
Produced by Theatre Or and the Mizel Arts and Culture Center through November 4, 350 South Dahlia Street, 303-316-6360, www.maccjcc.org.
Robs me of that which not enriches him
And makes me poor indeed.
— William Shakespeare, Othello
As The Value of Names opens, a father and daughter are seated on the patio of an opulent Malibu home overlooking the ocean and kibbitzing about...what else?...names. The year is 1981. Benny is a brilliant Jewish comic who lost his livelihood and reputation during the Red Scare of the 1950s — though he has now come back to achieve a measure of fame and wealth. Norma is an actress and has just been cast in an interesting new play, one that could help make her career. She tells Benny that she's changing her name on the program — not, she assures him, because it sounds too Jewish, but because she wants a chance to emerge from his shadow and succeed or fail on her own. Eventually she brings up what she knows about her father's past, his encounter with the House Un-American Activities Committee and subsequent blacklisting — a past Benny concealed for many years and that she learned about from a magazine at a supermarket checkout stand. Benny is a difficult, somewhat self-pitying old man with plenty of legitimate grievances nonetheless. And Norma both sympathizes with his anger and thinks he should get over it: Isn't his current refusal to work with those who named names comparable to the odious blacklist itself?
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Everything comes to a head when the director of her play becomes ill and is replaced by Leo, the man who betrayed her father thirty years ago. Leo visits the house in Malibu to persuade Norma to continue in the role. Benny confronts him. Arguments — two-sided, three-sided — ensue. Periodically, Norma steps out of the action to provide narration. This could make for a rather static format, except that the characters are interesting, and Benny is often very funny in that warmly humorous Borscht Belt style. And the issues the play explores remain intensely relevant. As late as 1999, many theater people protested the awarding of a lifetime-achievement Oscar to Elia Kazan, whose betrayal of colleagues and friends to HUAC not only wrecked careers, but helped strengthen the committee's reputation. (Judy Holliday outfoxed HUAC by playing dumb; Arthur Miller stood up to it while his wife, Marilyn Monroe, stood by him. At his hearing, Paul Robeson thundered, "You are the non-patriots, and you are the un-Americans, and you ought to be ashamed of yourselves.")
The other salient issue concerns forgiveness: Will Benny forgive Leo, and should he? Playwright Jeffrey Sweet never quite tips his hand here, though he makes it clear that Benny's enduring bitterness probably caused his divorce and continues to distort and vex his daughter's life. The problem is that Leo (like Kazan himself) never asks for forgiveness or admits even obliquely that he's done anything wrong. Instead he blusters, describes the Stalinist tendencies of the leftist group he and Benny once belonged to, brags about his own accomplishments — achieved precisely because he cooperated with the committee — sneers at Victor Navasky's in-depth history of the blacklist, and tells a story about a youngster who once tried to confront him during a question-and-answer period and was blocked by the moderator. "He hadn't earned the right to ask me that question," Leo says with a great show of affronted dignity — to which the only possible response, it seems to me, is why the hell not? The McCarthy years are an enduring stain on American history, and while some victims, like Benny, eventually found stability and success, many of our most gifted artists didn't.
But it says a lot for the play, as well as for Richard Pegg's intelligent and meticulous direction and the performances of Roger Simon as kvetchy Benny, Dave Ufford as smoothly arrogant Leo and Lisa Rosenhagen as a very charming and conflicted Norma, that Sweet's questions keep the audience both emotionally and intellectually engaged through an intriguing ninety minutes.