Theatre Mirror Reviews - "The Value of Names"

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note: entire contents copyright 2004 by Larry Stark

"The Value of Names"

by Jeffrey Sweet
Directed by Lesley Chapman

Scenic Design by Gino Ng
Lighting Design by Josh Poirier
Costume Design by Tracy Campbell
Properties Artist Alicia Gregoire
Properties Master Cornelia Robart
Stage Manager Josh Poirier

Norma..................Nelleke Morse
Benny..................Harold Withee
Leo.....................Fred Robbins

Do you know why Morris Carnovsky, teaching in the new Theatre Department at Brandeis, referred to the famous film director Elia Kazan as "Ya mean that Rug Peddler!"
Do you know why, when they were making "A Funny Thing Happened on The Way to The Forum" together, Zero Mostel would only take director's notes In Writing from Jerome "Loose Lips" Robbins?
Back in the 1950's a good actor friend jumped to his death from the Mostel's apartment because he couldn't find work. (Later, in Woody Allen's small, forgotten movie "The Front" Mostel played that very friend.)
When you go to The Theatre Cooperative to see Jeffrey Sweet's "The Value of Names" --- and you should --- keep those facts in mind.

Sweet has not dressed ideas as people arguing, but made a play about flesh and blood, honestly different individuals who ressemble real, historic figures. And he does, eventually, take sides. That allows the actors to draw deep subtext into nearly every line. However, this is not a PBS history lesson. This play is really about the tools any actor must use --- down to his own life experience and personal integrity --- to make characters believable. Those are the things that determine the choices actors or directors make. And the play is also about the fact that no one can act at all without others to act with or an audience to act for. To deprive an actor of those is a crime --- the kind of crime Hemingway said was "like disturbing the feathers on a hawk's neck, if you knew they would never be the same."

The play begins with what may sound like an aside: an actress on the brink of what may be her career-starting role (maybe her first Equity contract show?) tries to tell her volatively opinionated father that she'd rather stop being "Benny Silverman's daughter" by changing her name. This plays as almost a Jewish intergenerational squabble, but sows the seeds and paints some background for powerful confrontations to come when Benny's successful former friend replaces the girl's director, and "just drops by" to keep her in his cast.

I'd like to think this may be the first role to make Nelleke Morse noticed enough to get bigger parts. (Her bio tells me I've seen her before, often in well-chosen company.) To my mind she and Harold Withee have yet to shake down to an old-familiar-battle on a newer subject, but that will come. The deadly fireworks really begin with the entrance of the nemesis --- Fred Robbins, bringing their pasts back onto Gino Ng's squarely sun-lit patio, seeking some sort of resolution to their unforgiveable history. Their playing, like the play, gets better and better as this give-no-quarter battle unfolds.

Lesley Chapman knows that a director's first important choice is casting, but there are tiny details --- pauses, and sudden shouting-matches --- that etch these characters. Benny the host, for instance, brings two beers, yet never drinks with his old drinking-buddy.

I graduated highschool in 1950, in the heart of the McCarthy witch-hunts, but for many the meat of Jeffrey Sweet's material may be new. Even at the time I didn't learn that in 1956 the Alley Theatre of Houston could take any play they wanted to the Brussells World's Fair --- except Arthur Miller's metaphor of current controversies "The Crucible". For young minds, it is a credit to Sweet that his play is much more about its people than about its background. And this is a fine production of it.

Of course, I may not be the person to write an Objective review of this play. You see, back in 1972, after writing reviews for six excellent years, I quit Boston After Dark when all the newspapers here in Boston had a hiring-freeze. It took nine depressing years of therapy thereafter to figure out that, ever since, I had been essentially In Mourning for the the reviewer I had been. Now, thanks to a lot of generous friends and The Theater Mirror, I can say again, proudly, "I review plays."
But I know, first-hand, how it feels when it becomes impossible to practice your craft.

"The Value of Names" can give you some insights about that situation.


"The Value of Names" (12 November - 11 December)
Elizabeth Peabody House, 277 Broadway SOMERVILLE MA
1(617) 625-1300

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