by Gail M. Burns, February 2008
When Julianne Boyd announced in December that Barrington Stage would be presenting Trumbo in February, I had a “wait, wait, don’t tell me” moment. “What’s a Trumbo?” my date for the evening whispered. Dalton Trumbo. I knew that name, but why? “He was a writer...I think.” But I failed to recall a single thing he had written or in what genre he wrote.
If you are a movie geek, you will be ashamed of me, because Dalton Trumbo was one of the best screenwriters of the mid-20th century. But I am a theatre geek and I cannot possibly be expected to recall a playwright whose sole Broadway effort ran for barely two weeks in 1949. But there is another reason why I should have known the name Dalton Trumbo (1905-1976). He was one of the Hollywood Ten, members of the Screenwriters’ Guild of America who refused to name names when called before the House Un-American Activities Committee, and one of the first screenwriter to be blacklisted.
The blacklist was still in force when I was born, but by the time I was old enough to understand such things it was ancient history. It was literally something I learned about by reading “Mad Magazine.” By the time I was a teenager the sixties were swinging and a time when people were jailed and denied employment because of what they believed seemed almost impossible to imagine.
But as we know history has a way of repeating itself, and as surveillance, overt and covert, increases and privacy diminishes and the politically incorrect are censured more and more frequently, 2008 seemed like a good time to accept the reality of the McCarthy Era and learn from its grievous errors. I was excited to see Trumbo: Red, White, and Blacklisted, a two-man show crafted by Trumbo’s son Christopher from his father’s letters.
Christopher Trumbo was seven when his father appeared before the HUAC, and so the years covered by the play are living history for him. After graduating from Columbia he followed in his father’s footsteps and became a screenwriter for film and television. His film adaptation of Trumbo is set to be released this spring.
While the elder Trumbo was indisputably a gifted writer who had a lot to say and said it very well, this is a play over-weighted with words. Christopher Trumbo is adamant that the actors hold script pages in their hands and at least appear to be reading so that the audience understands that these are letters and not fiction, a conceit that is the undoing of the very message he is trying to get across.
As I watched Trumbo I sometimes found my mind wandering, not because Dalton Trumbo didn’t write well or because he wasn’t writing about important and interesting things, but because there was so little going on visually. As Dalton Trumbo, Thom Christopher enters, sits down at a desk, and never gets up until the curtain call. For the entire 105 minutes he is a man behind a desk reading from papers. That’s not really theatre. In fact I think the ideal format for this piece would be radio, a medium in which the audience is prepared to be listeners rather than voyeurs.
I did not find sitting in a theatre and watching Christopher and Brian Hutchison (as Christopher Trumbo, the narrator, and a few other characters) read very interesting. And they were reading, there were clearly times when they stumbled over words or misread them (Christopher read Congressional, rather than Congregational, for the name of a church in New Hampshire) the way you do when reading material relatively new to you.
Christopher Trumbo created this piece for the entertainment at a fund-raising evening his mother was organizing, and so he created it to be read with minimal rehearsal, as is A.R. Gurney’s Love Letters, rather than memorized and performed. He didn’t envision it having a continuing life as a stage play so he didn’t structure it as a stage play. As has been done with Love Letters, the 2003-2004 off-Broadway run of Trumbo featured a rotating cast of stars including Nathan Lane, F. Murray Abraham, Chris Cooper, Brian Dennehy, Richard Dreyfuss, Charles Durning, Christopher Lloyd, Robert Loggia, Roger Rees, and Gore Vidal. But Christopher and Hutchison are the only actors who will appear at Barrington Stage, and I don’t see why they couldn’t have memorized more and read less. Christopher particularly, with his back ground in soap opera, must have developed a strategy for memorizing large amounts of dialogue quickly and accurately.
Christopher Trumbo obviously loves and admires his father, as well he should, but that sentiment has clouded his ability to make this piece as strong as it obviously could have been given the strength of Dalton Trumbo’s writing and the gripping events he lived through. While he heavily edited his father’s letters for this piece, the excerpts that remain are still too long for this format. And being a living playwright, he has the power to dictate how the piece can be performed, and how it can’t. As director, Boyd has no choice but to have her actors appear to be reading, but she could have required them to memorize the script. She could have found times and ways in which Christopher could have gotten up and moved about the stage. She could have invented ways for Hutchison to move his chair and podium slightly less awkwardly (putting them on casters might have helped.)
Thom Christopher, who was so riveting as Pablo Picasso in last June’s BSC production of A Picasso is commanding here were he has only a tenuous grip on the words and therefore on his character. Hutchison, who has far fewer words to grapple with, remains merely a narrator standing on the side-lines, never an active participant in the flow of events.
Another strike against this play is that it assumes the audience not only knows what a Trumbo is, but has quite a thorough knowledge of the McCarthy era, which I suspect most people under 50 don’t. I had no idea that Senator Jospeh McCarthy was never a member of the HUAC, or that Richard Nixon was. I could have used, and enjoyed, a history lesson, which could have been provided by allowing the character of Dalton Trumbo to interact with other people, rather than merely read letters, or by giving the Christopher Trumbo/Narrator character a little more information about the times during which his father wrote, and less about the Trumbo family. In many cases it isn’t even clear to whom Dalton Trumbo is writing/speaking, which leaves the audience even more in limbo.
Thankfully, Dalton Trumbo was a wise and funny writer, and there some nice chunks of story that are entertaining and interesting. I particularly enjoyed his description of how he and his wife Cleo “critiqued” their friends’ writing efforts, and then there is “The Letter” on a hilariously personal subject which Dalton sent to Christopher when he was in college. These are not stories of the blacklist, but stories of family and friends with which anyone can relate, whether they learned about McCarthy-ism from “Mad Magazine,” a college textbook, or first hand experience.
I have a feeling the documentary film version of this piece will be far more successful that the so-called play we see now. Hopefully the film footage will be clearer and crisper, what was projected at BSC on opening night was woefully underexposed and hard to see.
I am excited that BSC is taking Trumbo on the road. As we all strive to live "greener" more sustainable lives, returning to a time when the theatre comes to the audience rather than the other way around is inevitable. For one night only Trumbo will be presented at the Venable Theater, on the campus of the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, MCLA in North Adams, on Wednesday, February 20 at 7pm; tickets are $25.
Following the February 21 performance of Trumbo, Alan Chartock President and CEO of WAMC Radio and noted Berkshire Eagle columnist, will host a post-show talkback.
Barrington Stage Company is located at 30 Union Street, in Pittsfield. For tickets, call 413-236-8888 or purchase online at www.barringtonstageco.org. Trumbo: Red, White and Blacklisted runs through February 24. Performance schedule and ticket prices: Thursday, February 14, 7pm (preview) $15; Friday, February 15, 8pm (preview) $15; Saturday, February 16, 8pm (Press Opening) $25; Sunday, February 17, 3pm $25; Wednesday, February 20, 7pm, at MCLAs Venable Theater, $25; Thursday, February 21, 7pm $25; Friday, February 22, 8pm $25; Saturday, February 16, 4pm $15; Saturday, February 23, 8pm $25; and Sunday, February 24, 3pm $25. $10 student (21 years and under) tickets available for all performances except Saturday evening.
The show runs an hour and forty-five minutes with no intermission and is suitable for ages 13 and up. For tickets, call the box office at (413) 236-8888 (Pittsfield); (413) 528-8888 (South County) or visit www.barringtonstageco.org.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2008