‘The Value of Names,” George Street Playhouse’s second production of the season, is an aptly titled three-person drama. Written by Jeffery Sweet, the play centers on issues of value and the naming of names. The award-winning Jack Klugman is cast as Benny Silverman, an actor and comic, whose career was derailed some 50 years ago by the House Unamerican Activities Committee, and who has not been able to forget the harm done him by Leo Gershen, at the time one of his closest friends and associates. Gershen is played by Dan Lauria, familiar to George Street Playhouse audiences from last season’s “Inspecting Carol” and “The Pillowman.” The third person in the drama is Silverman’s daughter, Norma, played by Liz Larsen.
Silverman is not one to forget a wrong, and he is also quick to see one. His daughter, a New Yorker, is visiting his home in Malibu because she is about to appear in a play in Los Angeles. She tells him she is planning to change her last name so she can be judged on her own talent and not be thought of simply as the daughter of Benny Silverman. Silverman cannot understand her motivation and takes this as a slight to him, another example of the weight of names.
Gershen is in town because he has been called on to step in and take over from the ailing director of the play Norma is in. Gershen cannot understand why Silverman will not forgive him — he had to betray his friend and colleague to save his own skin — and besides, he says, it all happened over 40 years ago. As the two colleagues talk, one sees why they once were friends. And as they reminisce and once again laugh, despite the animosity Silverman still holds, at what amused them 40 years ago, one almost thinks they will make up, but Silverman can neither forget nor forgive.
Jack Klugman as Benny Silverman is nothing short of amazing. An award-winning actor of stage and screen, who is perhaps best known to many for his television roles in “The Odd Couple” and “Quincy, M.E.” Despite having lost one of his vocal chords to cancer and despite his age, 83, to watch (and hear) him talking, whispering, croaking — even shouting — all the while moving about freely and energetically, is an extraordinary experience. (His energy seems boundless — Klugman is scheduled after every performance to sign copies of his book, “Me and Tony,” which tells of his debt to Tony Randall: after he lost his vocal chord he was planning to stop acting, and he credits Randall with encouraging him to have voice therapy and get back on the stage.)
As Leo Dan Lauria gives us a clear sense of an ambitious man who may possibly grasp to some extent why what he did was so immoral but cannot understand why Silverman can’t let it go. Liz Larsen gives an energetic performance as the daughter who loves her father but wants to make it on her own. Feeling that his career was ruined, Silverman doesn’t realize that his daughter finds him famous enough to keep her from moving ahead on her own. Larsen engages in a fair amount of acrobatic hijinx to let off steam, and thanks to remarkable casting, we can even see a physical similarity between father and daughter. Their relationship is yet another fascinating aspect of “The Value of Names.” Norma was raised 3,000 miles from her father (her parents are divorced), yet when they start to argue, there is no question about their genetic ties.
This is pretty intense stuff, and the playwright wisely settled on 90 minutes and no intermission. Woven through the intensity, however, are plenty of snappy one-liners that defuse some of the tension; these characters tend to argue by an exchange of wisecracks. The author also steps out of standard theatrical convention, having Norma address the audience members directly to bring them up to date. James Glossman, the director, keeps things moving at a quick pace. The set, designed by R. Michael Miller, is spectacular.
All the action takes place on the patio of Benny Silverman’s cliffside Malibu home; the audience’s vantage point is as if they are placed above the Pacific Ocean. The patio occupies the whole stage and combines ample space to sit with massive plantings of flowers. It is without question a luxurious home, but I’m not sure it’s ever made clear how Silverman, with his career derailed, made the money to afford this house. We are told he did have a long run on a sit-com called “Rich But Happy.”
The actors in “The Value of Names” are well enough known that the audience at the performance I attended rose and applauded when they entered. Many theater companies worry that their audience base is too old, but for “The Value of Names,” the older members of the audience are likely to be the ones most moved by this play. For many of them the days of blacklisting and naming names remain vivid in their memories, a shameful chapter in the history of the country.
The Value of Names, through Sunday, December 17, George Street Playhouse, 9 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick. Drama by Jeffrey Sweet stars Jack Klugman, Dan Lauria, and Liz Larsen, the comic’s daughter. $28 to $56. 732-246-7717.