Theatre Mirror Reviews - "Trumbo: Red, White and Blacklisted"

THE THEATER MIRROR, New England’s LIVE Theater Guide


"What Happened in Boston, Willie"

Reviews of Current Productions

note: entire contents copyright 2005 by Carl A. Rossi


by Christopher Trumbo
directed by Peter Askins

Christopher Trumbo … William Zielinski
Dalton Trumbo … Brian Dennehy

Christopher Trumbo’s TRUMBO: RED, WHITE AND BLACKLISTED pays tribute to his father Dalton Trumbo (1905-76), a screenwriter best known as one of the "Hollywood Ten" who were accused of being Communists in 1947. Mr. Trumbo refused to name names before the House Un-American Activities Committee, was imprisoned and subsequently blacklisted by Hollywood but managed to win Academy Awards for his fronted screenplays to ROMAN HOLIDAY (1953) and THE BRAVE ONE (1956). After becoming the first blacklisted writer to return to the industry with SPARTACUS and EXODUS (both 1960), Mr. Trumbo continued to work under his own name, again, even directing his own adaptation of his anti-war novel JOHNNY GOT HIS GUN; in 1992 he received posthumous credit for ROMAN HOLIDAY --- but the stigma remains.

The evening has two actors playing father and son with the latter as narrator and the former, seated, reading aloud from Mr. Trumbo’s correspondence. Christopher Trumbo clearly wants his father as both a martyr of the past and a prophet to today’s rising censorship but TRUMBO: RED, WHITE AND BLACKLISTED makes for safe, wart-free docudrama --- not surprisingly, it is playing at the Huntington: after a HUAC montage that coaxes snickers and groans from the audience, the seated actor reads carefully selected letters that keep Mr. Trumbo always in a favorable light --- who wouldn’t be outraged at a two-faced friend’s financial assistance or at one’s daughter being tormented in school because of her father’s disgrace? Who wouldn’t be moved at this father’s loving recollection of his son’s birth or roar over his own masturbatory coming-of-age? Who wouldn’t chuckle cozily over how naïve Americans were during the Cold War now that the Soviet Union is no more, just as future generations, in turn, may shake their heads over today’s views on terrorism? By leaving out why Mr. Trumbo was accused of Communism in the first place and barely touching upon his craft, what remains is a kvetch who came through bloody but not bowed and who used his Scarlet “C” to vent, evermore (we never learn whether or not Mr. Trumbo was a member of the Communist Party).

Part of TRUMBO’s problem lies in the man’s letters: as soon as one puts words to paper one starts to perform (I’m performing, now) and Mr. Trumbo was very much the stump-shouter --- a few passages of doubt and despair would have been welcome --- but Christopher Trumbo wants these motivated rants to pass as a complete portrait and he fills in the gaps with more newsreels and family-album photos. Mr. Trumbo would have sprung more vividly to life had his son included scripted dialogue, such as, “What did me in was a picture called TENDER COMRADE, made in 1943. It dealt with American women living in an all-girl commune during World War II. They pooled their money and shared the household chores while waiting for their husbands to come home. The leading lady --- notice I don’t mention her, by name --- the leading lady complained at the time that many of her lines sounded Communistic, and then there was that title: TENDER COMRADE. Well, when HUAC began to see Reds under its bed, someone remembered that lady’s remarks and TENDER COMRADE was used as evidence against me and several others. What’s ironic is that another of my screenplays had helped to win this same actress an Academy Award, several years before.” (This dialogue is my own fabrication but is based on fact.)

William Zielinski, the Huntington production’s only moveable part, is all wreathed smiles as the openly adoring son and I soon resisted his propaganda; Brian Dennehy, who has slimmed down considerably, reads Mr. Trumbo’s letters well --- barks them, really --- but without variety. Since a wide range of actors have declaimed these letters, elsewhere, characterization seems unnecessary; still, Mr. Dennehy remains a strolling Personality, even when seated, grinning but wary --- as I scribbled last year, he opens up to an audience just so much and no more. Considering Mr. Dennehy ridiculed the cross-dressing Eddie Izzard at last year’s Tony Awards, how ironic that his Trumbo is not unlike a drill-sergeant Oscar Wilde with quips for all occasions.

For the second time in a row, the Huntington displays a misleading poster: THE RIVALS’ image was two pairs of reclining feet whereas things remained strictly vertical; TRUMBO’s caricature of a man in a bathtub boils down to a photograph of Mr. Trumbo, himself, semi-submerged --- if you want skin there is always Mr. Dennehy’s dying architect in the film THE BELLY OF AN ARCHITECT, still his most vulnerable and moving performance.

"Trumbo: Red, White and Blacklisted" (8 February - 6 March)
Boston Center for the Arts, 527 Tremont Street, BOSTON, MA
1 (617) 266-0800

THE THEATER MIRROR, New England’s LIVE Theater Guide