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Review: `Jolson Sings Again’
This review by Nicole Plett was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on
March 10, 1999. All rights reserved.
In the theater they say "it’s all in the timing."
No timing could be more precisely synchronized nor as dazzlingly apt
as that of playwright Arthur Laurents and director David Saint. Their
new production of "Jolson Sings Again" opened last Wednesday
at George Street Playhouse — the same evening that Monica Lewinsky
monopolized the airwaves on broadcast TV. That Elia Kazan, one of
the play’s still-living references, due to receive an Oscar for lifetime
achievement on March 21, is also in the news this month, only adds
fuel to this play’s fire. No wonder the New Jersey premiere is attracting
The taut and lucid production of "Jolson Sings Again" that
pre-empted Monica and Linda and Ken on Wednesday night clearly warrants
the attention it is drawing. To a nation bludgeoned into numb disbelief
by the ideologically-driven impeachment of a popular president, this
multi-faceted return to the McCarthy era serves to remind us that
there are no winners — then or now. The play, originally written
by Laurents in 1992 and re-written for this East Coast premiere production,
continues at George Street through Sunday, March 28.
Laurents takes the play’s title from the life of Larry Parks, a B-movie
veteran who soared to stardom as Al Jolson in Hollywood’s "The
Jolson Story" of 1946, so successful it spawned the 1948 sequel,
"Jolson Sings Again." In 1951 Parks became the first witness
called to testify before Senator Joseph McCarthy’s House Committee
on Un-American Activities. Like so many of his unhappy successors,
after begging the committee not to force him to "name names"
of fellow-members of the Communist party, he capitulated and went
ahead and "sang like a canary."
Now, from a lifetime’s experience and a distance of some 50 years,
the 81-year-old Laurents has concocted an ingenious, four-person drama
to document the witch hunt’s mood, its manner, and its consequences.
Each of the play’s four characters are amalgams of Laurents’ experience;
they could not be more complicated, politically, professionally, or
sexually. And the caliber of performances delivered by this ensemble
of four actors is top flight. Area theatergoers can be grateful that
this intense drama is being presented in the intimacy of George Street
Playhouse’s 395-seat theater. The rapid pace and exacting dialogue
demands our focus. And we’re so close to the action we can almost
see the beads of sweat forming on the actor’s upper lip.
Robert Petkoff plays Julian, an idealistic young writer who has reluctantly
agreed to leave New York for Hollywood to write his first screenplay.
Petkoff, who carries off every nuance of his role as a committed author
with a complicated private life, was last seen as the mentally-disabled
psychopath in the 1998 George Street production of "Voices in
Armand Schultz plays Julian’s friend and sometime mentor Andreas,
a theater and movie director who has just landed his first major film
success. Completing the quartet of intertwined relationships is the
Jewish couple, with Betsy Aidem as Robbie, a successful Hollywood
agent and intimate of Andreas, and Jonathan Hadary as Sidney, her
ineffectual but politically passionate writer-husband.
Although the ex-New Yorkers have retained a sense of
their roots on West End Avenue, Hollywood has changed them, too. The
family is enjoying California’s sun-struck "good life," and
Robbie is pleased to report that their tall, athletic teenage son
— ironically named Lefty — could "pass" as a Gentile.
A fast, episodic structure takes us from a 1960s "afterword,"
back to a close examination of six McCarthy years, from 1947 to 1952.
Like the evidence at an inquest, each scene is scrupulously identified
and dated, almost as if the author wanted to insure that his documentation
of events should prove above suspicion.
"Are you now, or have you ever been a member of the Communist
Party?" was the relentless refrain of these years. Fueled by Hollywood
financiers who wanted to banish artists whose names were associated
with an anti-capitalist ideology, the witch hunts have stood —
until now — as one of the nation’s most shameful episodes.
Whether the betrayal is on scale of Linda Tripp’s, or the innumerable
lesser betrayals spawned by HUAC, the choice to act as informant to
government ideologues is a harsh one. In one of the play’s many nuanced
moments, Julian’s title for his breakthrough play about his sexual
orientation originates as "The Betrayer," yet mutates, 10
years later, in its first staged production, into "The Betrayal."
Julian describes himself as "a man who knows the difference between
good and evil." But the play has much to teach us about evil —
that in the presence of evil there can be no good. "People are
more important than principles," says Andreas, rationalizing his
decision to inform. "No. People are their principles,"
insists Julian, staking out an ideological position that, in this
fiction as in life, only serves to alienate husband from wife, and
mother from daughter.
Laurents is least effective as a moral guide, however, when he uses
the play as a vehicle to grind his own axe — as when he allows
his most unselfconscious partisan, Sidney, to hurl a few familiar
obscenities towards film and theater director Elia Kazan, whose "singing"
to HUAC in 1952 has led to protests of his Oscar award.
The play shows how actions and their motivation become terrifyingly
muddled. When Robbie receives her subpoena, we gratefully hear her
announce that because "I’ve done nothing wrong, I have nothing
to fear." We later learn that nothing could be further from the
truth. There are no winners.
Laurents has laced his tightly-packed script with references that
will undoubtedly resonate most strongly with his fellow "survivors."
Given the benefit of hindsight, he delights in such ironies as Sidney’s
observation that former HUAC member Richard Nixon is "all washed
up," after losing his 1962 campaign for California governor. "Maybe
there is fucking justice," says Sidney gleefully.
James Youmans’ set, a single, natty ’50s room — dominated by a
fully-stocked bar — revolves from scene to scene, serving as three
separate apartments and an office. The functional, understated clothes
by veteran designer by Theoni V. Aldredge are notable for a fit and
drape that’s as impeccable as this production.
— Nicole Plett
Avenue, New Brunswick, 732-246-7717. Performances through Sunday,
March 28. $24 to $36.
"Naming Names: A Look Inside the Hollywood 10" is a post-play
symposium with playwright Arthur Laurents, Victor Navasky, editor
of the Nation, and Kaye Lardner, daughter of Ring Lardner, a member
of the Hollywood 10 imprisoned for 10 months for taking the First
Amendment before the HUAC. Benjamin Barber of Rutgers moderates. Free.
Sunday, March 21, at 4 p.m.
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