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Dinah Manoff Directs Blacklisted Father's 'Telegram From Heaven'

July 19, 1992|JANICE ARKATOV | Janice Arkatov is a regular contributor to Calendar.

Though most people her age think of McCarthyism and the '50s blacklist as a page of history, Dinah Manoff recalls it firsthand.

"I remember unbelievable tension in our home," says the actress, whose father, Arnold Manoff, was one of the first writers targeted as a result of the congressional hearings on so-called un-American activities. "There were lots of meetings, lots of worries. I remember my father told me I had to be careful of what I said on the phone because it was tapped. And I remember how his friends adored and revered him."

Now daughter pays homage to father, making her directorial debut with "Telegram From Heaven," which opens Friday at the Hudson Theatre in Hollywood. The eight-character dramatization of Arnold Manoff's 1942 novel was adapted by his daughter and her longtime friend, actor-writer Dennis Bailey. Manoff admits that the production is a labor of love, a project that has held her attention since she first read her father's book at the age of 14.

"He died when I was 8," said the actress, who has played Carol for four seasons on the popular NBC sitcom "Empty Nest." "But when I read the book, I felt such a connection to this young girl, who's so much like me--and so much like him. I am my father's daughter: I have his language, his expressions. It's a very political play; my father was a political man. And it's a feminist play, a coming of age story--very identifiable and very funny."

Actress Valerie Landsburg ("Fame") plays the lead role of Sylvia Singer, a 22-year-old woman living in the Bronx in 1941, as war looms on the horizon. "It's about her coming to consciousness as a woman," she said, "and being asked to adhere to rules that don't make sense anymore."

Landsburg has been best friends with Manoff for 13 years: She was her understudy for Neil Simon's "I Ought to Be in Pictures" at the Mark Taper Forum in 1980.

Manoff admits that she'd always imagined herself playing Sylvia, but is pleased with the way things have turned out. "I wanted to direct more than I wanted to act," said the actress-director, whose mother is the actress-director Lee Grant. "And I found I couldn't do everything. The great thing is, I have shorthand with Valerie as an actress, a real chemistry. So it's like I get the gratification of doing it--but she gets to do it."

The process of turning the novel into the play began several years ago, when Manoff started using scenes from the book for acting class. In 1984, she worked on the play as a one-act at Company of Angels; for the past two years, she and Bailey have been intensively reworking and rewriting. In November, the piece was given a reading in L. A. Theatre Works' "The Play's the Thing" radio series. Manoff cheerfully admits that there's new rewriting going on "even now."

"The book was almost entirely in dialogue," she noted. "So we've really had to cut and paste to find the play" in her father's book. She says with a laugh that she's "cut his work to ribbons."

"As a writer, I'm sure he's just glad he's being produced. Dennis and I write very freely within my father's language. To dramatize the book--make it live, not be inside the characters' heads--was very hard. So we had to take complete liberties."

She and Bailey share credit as adapters, but Manoff says, "This is my project, and Dennis understands that."

"But he's at the theater all the time now, taking care of the text--while I learn about lights. As an actor, I always hated tech week, but as a director, I love the technical part of it. It's like Candyland: tinkering, playing, experimenting with everything."

Although Manoff had early success as an actress--with film roles in "Grease" and "Ordinary People," and a 1980 Tony Award for "I Ought to Be in Pictures"--she says she has always been interested in directing: "I went to film school at CalArts, and I've spent the last half-year learning cameras on 'Empty Nest.' "

That has led to an invitation to direct the show's fourth episode next season, which leaves Manoff "very excited--and ready for it."

In the meantime, though, she's content to spend all her energy on the play. "The only downside is that I'll go back to 'Empty Nest' in August a little tired," she said. "Oh, and I dream of props missing, of lights out of focus. But everyone I'm working with, I love. Valerie. Renee Taylor, whom I've worshiped for years." Daniel Saks designed the set, which she terms "awesome." The son of Gene Saks and Bea Arthur, he's the assistant set director on "Empty Nest."

The most obvious emotional connection is, of course, to her father. "I don't have a big need for closure with my father; that's not a reason to do it," Manoff stressed. "The closure is inevitable; it exists as a byproduct of doing this. But it's not the motivation. And it's not a sentimental journey. I'm an entertainer: I want to make people laugh, cry. I want to move them."

And she believes the piece itself is valuable. "I've done a lot of work for money," Manoff said. "Some of the work I've done is like this--for my heart. And it turns me on: It's political, provocative, touching, an undiscovered book so ahead of its time. It's not like I'm going to be collaborating with my dead father for the rest of my life. But because he was blacklisted, he was deprived of access for so many years. So it is nice to be able to give his work a shot, a new chance."

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