A star vehicle as engaging as it is thematically pointed, Jeffrey Sweet's "The Value of Names" has the kind of dream roles that have attracted name performers ever since it was first mounted in 1983.
The current incarnation at the Falcon Theatre stars Jack Klugman, who has performed in several previous productions of the play with his costars, Dan Lauria and Liz Larsen. Lauria also directs the Falcon staging, with original direction credited to James Glossman.
A veteran of stage and screen, Klugman is best known for his portrayal of Oscar Madison on the long-running television series "The Odd Couple." Here, Klugman also gets his share of one-liners playing Benny Silverman, an actor who was blacklisted after his close friend, Leo Gershen (Lauria), ratted him out to the House Un-American Activities Committee. After decades of unemployment, Benny achieved new fame starring in a successful sitcom.
Now well off, Benny whiles away his retirement painting, puttering about, and bickering with his adult daughter Norma (Larsen) during her infrequent visits.
It's been 40 years since Leo ratted him out, but Benny is as keenly resentful of Leo's betrayal as ever. When Leo is recruited to take over the direction of a new play in which Norma has been cast, Leo and Benny cross paths, cross swords, and reopen old wounds -- wounds that remain agonizing for them both.
Written almost 25 years ago, Sweet's play is still set in the "present day," but considering how much time has elapsed since the HUAC hearings, that seems a stretch. Despite the chronological un-likeliness, however, "Names" remains searingly topical, a frank, funny treatment of ethical equivocation, moral relativism, and the dangers of untrammeled rationalization.
The action takes place entirely on Benny's Malibu patio. Keith Mitchell's sensational set gives a sense of spacious opulence, while Nick McCord's subtly dappled lighting captures the glittering changeability of a seaside locale. One would think that such luxurious surroundings might, over time, prove mellowing. Not for Benny. Under his laid-back exterior crackles retributive fire.
Although he's somewhat young to play Klugman's contemporary, Lauria is a commanding presence who captures the searing regret under Leo's blustering self-justification. Larsen nicely downplays her character, a charming pain-in-the-butt who is, after all, a chip off the old Benny.
Yet is it Klugman who dominates the evening. Well into his 80s, the survivor of recurrent cancer that cost him a vocal cord, Klugman speaks in a raspy, labored growl. If you're seated at the back of the house, you might miss the occasional line or two. No matter. An easeful and authoritative performer whose keen sense of timing is undiminished by time, Klugman is an abiding talent seen here at a heartening peak of craft.
`The Value of Names'
Where: Falcon Theatre, 4252 Riverside Drive, Burbank
When: 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 4 p.m. Sundays
Ends: June 24
Price: $25 to $37.50
Contact: (818) 955-8101. www.FalconTheatre.com
Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes