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Theater | Theater Review

Blacklist Era's Climate of Dread

November 29, 2001|PHILIP BRANDES | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Name-dropping--in both the titillating and unsettling senses of the term--casts an all-pervasive cloud over a fictionalized reunion of theater luminaries amid the anti-Communist witch hunts of the 1950s, in a powerful revival of Mark Kemble's "Names" by the Group at the Lee Strasberg Institute.

It's hard to imagine a better venue for this drama about a 1952 gathering of alumni from New York's celebrated Group Theatre than the company that continues its legacy. The production, helmed by Adam Davidson, is a meticulously crafted homage to the seminal visionaries that spawned some of the brightest American acting talent of the last century. But idol worship is not the goal here. The looming specter of compelled testimony before the notorious House Un-American Activities Committee hearings probing Communist Party affiliations in the entertainment industry brings even these giants down to earth. Holed up in an Algonquin Hotel suite, the morose, self-pitying fallen star John Garfield (Robert Mobley) embodies the sinister consequences of a merciless inquisition. Blacklisted for his lack of cooperative testimony the previous year, Garfield confronts a handful of his former colleagues who will soon be facing similar tests of character.

This hapless group includes the drunken, fearful playwright Clifford Odets (Christopher Grove); an imperiously unflappable Stella Adler (Karen Austin) and her career-obsessed brother, actor Luther (Richard Cox); Stella's estranged husband, the caustic critic and Group Theatre co-founder Harold Clurman (David Kagen); and a sullen Elia Kazan (Shaun Duke). Particular kudos are due Barry Cutler's quietly assured turn as Strasberg, lobbing barbed homilies from the sidelines in the master's signature pinched vocal inflections.

Sadly, the national obsession with finger-pointing brings out the worst in these lofty-principled artists. Loyalty and friendship are strained to the breaking point, as the group's rampant egos and self-absorption contrast sharply with the ideals of an admiring bellhop (Jamieson Stern) who receives shabby treatment at their hands.

Kemble's characterizations are sometimes pat, and his dialogue given to an excess of speechifying. Nonetheless, the play potently evokes a climate of dread as our nation's basic principles and freedoms crumbled before an inquisition with unchecked power.

"Names," Lee Strasberg Institute, 7936 Santa Monica Blvd., West Hollywood. Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 3 p.m. Ends Dec. 23. $15-19. (323) 650-7777. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes.

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