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Gordon MacDonald and Nathan Lane in TrumboTo Whom It May Concern
By Terry Stoller




By Christopher Trumbo
Westside Theatre (Downstairs)
407 W. 43rd St.
Box office: (212) 315-2244




While scholars and critics debate the borders of the real and representation, contemporary audiences are filling theatres to hear the stories and words of actual people in plays like The Vagina Monologues and The Exonerated. One reason may be the draw of star performers, cast by wily producers; another reason may be that people are eager to learn about personal and public history as a way to find meaning in their own lives. Trumbo offers both a starry experience and a window into the life of a fascinating and talented writer. The play, performed as a staged reading at the Westside Theatre/Downstairs, is a presentation of the letters and speeches of Dalton Trumbo. He was one of the "Hollywood Ten," who in the late forties were blacklisted by the movie industry and served prison terms for contempt of Congress. The production opened with Nathan Lane starring as Dalton Trumbo and Gordon MacDonald as his son Christopher. It is currently advertising a rotating celebrity cast in the weeks to come, including F. Murray Abraham and Brian Dennehy.

Christopher Trumbo put together the piece, which narrates his father’s journey from his appearance as an unfriendly witness before the House Committee on Un-American Activities to his time in prison to his self-imposed exile in Mexico and his eventual return to California. Throughout these troubled times, Trumbo circumvented the blacklist by submitting film scripts under a pseudonym or using the services of a “front.” Not until 1960—thanks to Kirk Douglas as a producer of the film Spartacus and Otto Preminger as producer/director of Exodus—did Trumbo’s name appear again in film credits.

The play opens with a eulogy by Trumbo’s friend, writer Ring Lardner Jr., who makes it clear that Trumbo was neither virtuous nor universally revered. The Trumbo who emerges from his writings is by turns acerbic, angry, righteous, loving, and funny. That he was angry as he experienced the seismic shocks in his world is understandable. But he was not above targeting his acid words and sharp wit at a local telephone signal company that installed an intercom system for him. He advised the head of the company to send the bill to Trumbo's business manager, who “hates creditors and does not pay them too promptly.” Having addressed an earlier correspondence to the company to “Dear burglars,” Trumbo also extended his "good wishes for the holiday season to everyone in the thuggery." Incarceration did not diminish his humor. A poem he composed for Christopher’s tenth birthday was (like all his other correspondence from prison) capped off with the words Prisoner Number 7551. A devoted father, Trumbo fired off a passionate protest to the principal of his daughter’s elementary school, where she was experiencing negative fallout from her father’s reputation. Trumbo wrote letters as copiously as he did screenplays, and one historian says he was able to turn out forty script pages a day. (Letters dating from 1942 to 1962 have been collected in a volume titled Additional Dialogue.)

The play doesn’t delve into Trumbo’s political affiliations or explain why he and his friends joined the Communist Party. In an aside, however, the son shares his father’s explanation of the difference between communism and capitalism. For communism, the father gives the classic definition: from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs. But capitalism, explains the parent, is a “system where one person hires a second person to perform some task, and then sells the product to a third person for a profit.” Weighing the two systems, the son resolves to become a capitalist. Christopher also relates a moment of personal political consciousness-raising when he visited his father at the Federal Correctional Institute in Ashland, Kentucky. The son's introduction to segregation rules came when he stumbled into the blacks-only balcony of Ashland’s movie theatre. How ironic, he thought, that his father was accused of un-American activities in a country in which discrimination was tolerated as an American activity.

Director Peter Askin’s staging employs clever lighting and projections to suggest the change of place, from Trumbo’s study to his prison cell to his Mexican retreat. Historical footage provides context, with scenes from the House committee’s proceedings, including testimony by such “friendly” witnesses as Ronald Reagan and Gary Cooper. The two actors remain aware of each other as they read the material, with Lane addressing sections of the “Christopher” letters to MacDonald and MacDonald showing his enjoyment of both Trumbo’s writing and Lane’s performance. Their rapport enlivens the recitations and underlines the son’s affection for his father.

The eloquence of the letters is well matched by Lane’s expressiveness. In the hands of the musical-comedy star, the piece has the feel of a concert. There is a beautiful ballad, a long, moving letter Trumbo wrote to the mother of a recently deceased friend whom he had met as a war correspondent and who had agreed to act as his front. The letter vividly describes the experiences of two men far from home, facing the dangers of war. The show-stopper is a letter that Trumbo wrote to his son about the benefits of masturbation, detailing his own experiences and practices. The delivery veers into a Nathan Lane extravaganza with vocal mannerisms and gestures, but the writing is equally extravagant, even masturbatory. Yet Christopher includes this letter as a representation of his father; he says he shared it with many friends, and it came to be known as “the letter.”

Though the blacklist era feels like an episode of the past, curtailing people’s rights is very much a concern of the present. As I left the theatre, I heard people making connections between the play and the Bush Administration’s campaign for the Patriot Act. Indeed Trumbo’s producers are dedicating a portion of the proceeds to People for the American Way, an organization, the program reads, that is “active wherever the First Amendment, other constitutional rights and core democratic values are at risk.”

Trumbo is a compelling firsthand account of a man who lived through a dark period in American life. It’s also a reminder of the riches to be found in correspondence—a tribute to the art of letter writing, an art that may be vanishing in an era of erasable e-mails.


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