NJT’s ‘Value of Names’—short, strong and timely

Peter Mayer and Bobby Miller star in the New Jewish Theatre’s production of ‘The Value of Names,’ which runs through April 1.

BY ROBERT A. COHN, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus

In the “Sayings of the Sages,” it is said, “There are three crowns: the crown of learning, the crown of priesthood and the crown of royalty; but greater than any of these is the crown of  a good name” (Tractate 4:13).  The New Jewish Theatre’s polished and powerful production of “The Value of Names,” by the gifted playwright Jeffrey Sweet, explores the subject of its title through the lens of a complex relationship among a father, daughter and the father’s estranged friend. The friend had ratted out the father during the infamous blacklisting/witch hunt of leftist stage and screen personalities, which destroyed many careers, saved others and remains a stain on the history of Congress and the entertainment industry.

Alec Wild demonstrates energetic direction as a superb cast of players re-visits a familiar story with originality and the right balance of intellectual battles and emotional scars.  

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The three-person cast includes Bobby Miller who shines in the role of Benny Silverman,  whose name had been given up by his former best-friend Leo Greshen (a convincing, focused portrayal by  Peter Mayer).  Benny and Leo are like deadly serious versions of the characters in Neil Simon’s “The Odd Couple.”  Back in their younger days as members of a leftist theatrical group, Benny and Leo had been the best of friends, who enjoyed “talking about girls and revolutions”; since the 1953 betrayal, the two have been estranged,  their friendship shattered during the infamous period of McCarthyism when right-wing zealots sought out former leftists in various sectors and caused them to be blacklisted by frightened producers in Hollywood or on Broadway.

Both Benny and Leo have gone on from the blacklisting trauma to successful careers, with Benny becoming the star of a mega-hit sitcom and Leo becoming a highly regarded stage and screen director.  The action takes place in 1983, some 30 years after Leo betrayed Benny to the Congressional committee investigating alleged former Communists or “fellow travelers” in the entertainment community.

Into the mix comes Benny’s independence-minded daughter Norma Silverman, (Elana Kepner in a solid performance as a talented young woman determined to stand up to her impossibly difficult father). Norma is a successful young actress on the rise, who upsets the already bitter and depressed Benny by informing him that she wants to change her stage name so as not to “always be thought of first as the daughter of a famous actor.”

Even before Benny can fully process the name change announcement, Norma informs him that the replacement director for her current play is none other than Leo Greshen.

The crackling non-stop wisecracking dialogue between Benny and Norma invites comparison to both Neil Simon and Donald Margulies, two masters of New Yorky, sardonic irony.  

The inspiration for the story is not only the overall blacklisting era, but a specific case of the famous blacklisted dancer Paul Draper, whose name had been given up to the infamous House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) by Jerome Robbins. Sweet’s good friend Kate Draper had just been cast in her first Broadway show, and Sweet worked up the courage to ask her what her father would say if she were in a show directed by Jerome Robbins.  Kate at first said that Tommy Tune was the director, but when pressed, said that her father would disapprove but probably wouldn’t say anything.  “I thought if the father (Benny) would say something, that would make a play,” Sweet surmised.

Sweet was absolutely on target with his decision to use his hypothetical situation as the basis for a fresh look at the Blacklisting era, which has already been amply mined in dozens of other works. The play moves briskly in 75 minutes of bristling dialogue, without intermission.  

The dialogue gets especially testy when Leo arrives unannounced at Benny’s posh Malibu patio, which overlooks the Pacific Ocean.  Leo, who has become an Oscar and Tony-award winning director, and who has been reconciled with other blacklisted friends whose names he had “named” to HUAC, makes a full-court press to persuade Benny to give his blessing to Norma appearing in the play.  But Benny stubbornly clings to his rage, and loudly berates Leo for the three-decades old betrayal.

Benny’s anger is compounded by the triple betrayal he feels from his daughter and from his former wife, who had reverted back to her maiden name after the divorce, and by the seeming collusion between his once best-friend and his daughter to force him to accept what he finds unacceptable.  In the production notes Miller and Mayer describe their own relationship as being “best friends,” and are able to imbue their portrayals with the authenticity of those strong bonds that continue between dear friends even after there has been emotional trauma.

As Benny, Norma and Leo stalk each other (on the nifty set designed by Production Manager Maggy Bort and her team), one senses the deeply conflicted feeling among them as they wrestle with such issues as loyalty, grudge bearing and “standing on principle.”

In the hands of the NJT, “The Value of Names” makes for an evening of top-flight theater that should not be missed.