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Notes From Underground

Listening to letters read onstage isn't as compelling as reading them yourself

That Christopher Trumbo has placed himself onstage in his own play is not only slightly narcissistic, but also leads to a decidedly lopsided portrait of his father. Ring Lardner Jr., a longtime friend of Trumbo père, once described the screenwriter with a contradictory list of adjectives: "wise, funny, greedy, generous, vain, biting, solicitous, ruthless, tender-hearted, devious, contentious, superbly rational, altruistic, prophetic, shortsighted, and indefatigable." Christopher's play, on the other hand, does little to show us anything of his father's dark side. The only villains in Trumbo are those in documentary footage of House Un-American Activities Committee hearings, which intermittently flashes across the two screens flanking the stage. (Ronald Reagan's appearance at one point made the audience hiss the night I saw the show.)

Since premiering in New York in 2003, Trumbo has featured a rotating roster of A-list actors, including Nathan Lane, Richard Dreyfuss, Ed Harris, Tim Robbins, Chris Cooper, and Alec Baldwin, all of whom, like Dennehy, have performed with text in hand. When I asked one of the show's PR managers why the actors in Trumbo hold scripts onstage, he told me in an e-mail that the playwright "wanted to make sure that the audience didn't get drawn into the 'fantasy' of theatre" and instead appreciated the letters as "authentic" historical documents. The problem with this explanation is that Trumbo is being marketed as theater -- with the star in the title role as a major selling point -- not as a public reading. Askin's static mise-en-scène is obviously meant to help the talent manage the scripts more comfortably, but ultimately it smacks of laziness. No matter how worthy Trumbo's life and epistolary skills are of exposure, you can't throw a bunch of letters up onstage, have them read aloud by a famous actor, and expect theatrical magic.

Let Him Move: Brian Dennehy's presence 
and voice bring the text to life, but the actor 
seems trapped by the furniture.
Allen Brisson-Smith
Let Him Move: Brian Dennehy's presence and voice bring the text to life, but the actor seems trapped by the furniture.
Let Him Move: Brian Dennehy's presence 
and voice bring the text to life, but the actor 
seems trapped by the furniture.
Allen Brisson-Smith
Let Him Move: Brian Dennehy's presence and voice bring the text to life, but the actor seems trapped by the furniture.

Details

Through March 20

Tickets are $42.50-62.50

771-6900

w ww.trumbotheplay.com

Post Street Theatre, 450 Post (at Powell), S.F.

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There is real magic in those letters, though. If nothing else, the production makes you want to read Trumbo's correspondence for yourself and find out more about the man who would eventually go on to pen The Brave One, Spartacus, Johnny Got His Gun (based on his own novel), and Roman Holiday, as well as pick up two Oscars -- both for scripts written under pseudonyms during the blacklist years. The San Francisco Public Library's copy of Additional Dialogue: Letters of Dalton Trumbo, 1942-1962, edited by Helen Manfull, can be found at the third-floor page desk, call number BT7705L. Borrow it. You won't be disappointed.

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