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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

national attention.

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

the Dark."

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

Jolson Sings Again, George Street Playhouse, 9 Livingston

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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