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<i>NY Times</i> Reviews Play "Trumbo"

Anonymous Comrade submits:

"One-to-One Words of a Blacklistee"

Bruce Weber, NY Times, Sept. 5, 2003

Even beyond the sonorous trochees that make it stick in the mind like a musical phrase, Dalton Trumbo is a memorable name in Hollywood. You can still see it on the screen a lot. Trumbo, who died in 1976, was a prolific screenwriter whose 50 or so film credits included "Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo," "Lonely Are the Brave," "Spartacus," "Exodus," "Papillon," "The Fixer," "The Sandpiper," "Hawaii" and "Johnny Got His Gun," which he adapted and directed from his own antiwar novel. And of course he was a leading member of the Hollywood 10, a group of writers, producers and directors who, after appearing before the House Un-American Activities Committee in Washington in 1947, were branded as Communist sympathizers and blacklisted by the studios.These are among the celebrated highlights of Trumbo's résumé. He wasn't known for his letters until now, but in a new theater piece cobbled from them by his son, Christopher, the case is made that he was something of an epistolary genius. The show, called simply "Trumbo," opened Off Broadway at the Westside Theater last night with Nathan Lane in the title role. (He and his co-star, Gordon MacDonald, will be in it through Sept. 21; the cast will then revolve through the open-ended run.) And though "Trumbo" is less a full-fledged play than an enhanced reading (both Mr. Lane and Mr. MacDonald, who plays Christopher and functions as a narrator, are holding their scripts), the text, especially of the letters themselves, is a joy to hear read.

Written on subjects as diverse as financial hardship, personal integrity, fatherhood and masturbation, to recipients ranging from his wife and son to a cowardly former friend to the mother of a young man who had just died to another blacklisted writer, the letters are thrilling, uneconomical torrents of words, alternately grandiloquent, ferocious, withering, sentimental, thunderously overwrought and always tailored, often hilariously, to their intended readership of one.

To the headmistress of the school where his young daughter, Mitzi, was ostracized and ridiculed because of her father's reputation, he wrote: "This slow murder of the mind and heart and spirit of a young child is the proud outcome of those patriotic meetings held by a few parents, under the sponsorship of the P.T.A. and the Bluebirds. It is a living test of the high principles of both organizations — principles noble in word, ignoble and savage in application. The principles are what they say: Mitzi is what they do. I should like you to watch how decently and bravely our daughter tries to suppress her bewilderment at her first encounter with barbarism parading as American virtue. Barbarism which began at your school among adult persons."

To the treasurer of the screenwriters' guild during the blacklist he wrote: "I have received your letter warning that I am now in jeopardy of being placed in bad standing for nonpayment of dues. I thought it rather loud and more than ordinarily witless, but to deny you these qualities would be to silence you altogether; and that, for constitutional reasons alone, I should not like to see happen."

To the president of a company who quoted him a price for installing a baby-monitoring intercom, he wrote, "Your letter has arrived and been put to the only sensible use I could think of."

As rendered by Mr. Lane with the punch of his muted-trumpet voice, such verbal pyrotechnics seem to give off actual sparks. And among other things, the show makes you lament the invention of e-mail. But that doesn't make "Trumbo" dramatically satisfying. For one thing, there's little or no action on the stage, and little or no interaction between the two actors. Mr. MacDonald, who gives Christopher the wistful air of a proud son at a memorial service, spends most of the time seated on one side of the stage or another, engaging the audience rather than Mr. Lane.

For his part, Mr. Lane, dressed in a navy suit with wide lapels and elegant chalk-stripe, spends the entire play seated behind a writing desk. And though, with his agile and remarkably angled eyebrows squeezing his wide face into masks of caricature, he is certainly capable of expressing both comic extravagance and fierce sincerity from the waist up, he still seems rather hamstrung.

Of course, this may simply be the solution the director, Peter Askin, came up with to accommodate his actors' need to have the scripts in front of them, but it's a static solution. He has added a few projected film clips (and a terrific audio clip of an indignant Humphrey Bogart) from the days of the blacklist, and they're welcome. Would there were a few more, in fact. You know you're visually hungry in the theater when you start noticing the lighting, and though Jeff Croiter's work is quite handsome (sunlight streaming into the office as if through blinds is a nice touch), it doesn't exactly stand in for lively exchanges between people.

And the portrait of Trumbo drawn by the show feels incomplete. That's understandable; it's drawn of a father by an admiring son, after all. But it is evidently true that as a man, Trumbo was famously difficult: acerbic, unforgiving and complicated. In a eulogy for his friend, Ring Lardner Jr. called him fascinating and abrasive and then added a list of equally contradictory adjectives to describe him: "wise, funny, greedy, generous, vain, biting, solicitous, ruthless, tender-hearted, devious, contentious, superbly rational, altruistic, prophetic, shortsighted and indefatigable."

But Lardner's list is about the only acknowledgment in the show that its subject might have had actual shortcomings and not just bearable eccentricities. Over the course of the show's 90 minutes, we never get to the parts of Trumbo that would qualify as, say, devious, shortsighted, greedy or ruthless. His characteristically pug defiance of authority is presented as wholly heroic, exemplified by his continuing to write during the blacklist under pseudonyms or with other writers fronting for him, and is rewarded in true Hollywood fashion, with quiet triumph and the humiliation of his enemies. In 1956, a screenplay Trumbo wrote for "The Brave One" won an Oscar, though the award was presented to Jesse Lasky Jr., the vice president of the screenwriters' guild, accepting on behalf of someone named Robert Rich, who received the screen credit though he didn't exist.

It all makes a movie script of a life story, doesn't it? But perhaps that's one difference between the screen and the stage. In the movies you can be satisfied with inspiration. The theater makes you hungry for the whole truth, no matter how eloquent one side of the story is.