Trumbo: Red, White and Blacklisted
By Christopher Trumbo
Produced by Rep Stage
Reviewed by Leslie Weisman
The colorful title “Trumbo: Red, White and Blacklisted” is a playful verbal lure that is true to the spirit of its subject. With a forthrightness that pays tribute to the blacklisted writer’s award-winning screenplays (The Brave One and Roman Holiday earned Oscars, Johnny Got His Gun the Cannes grand jury prize) and his personal correspondence from prison, it invites us in seeming innocence to expect one thing, only to bring us sharply down to earth – and up short – with quite a few more.
Rep Stage’s two-man show (the film Trumbo, which opened here two weeks ago, is based on the play), son Christopher Trumbo – aided and abetted by strong performances and a simple, almost Spartan set design, with two screens stage right and left that frame the action with stills and clips that comment at turns directly, at turns subtly, on it – invests with transformative new shades things once conveniently dismissed as black-and-white.
Taking the words of his father, one of the “Hollywood Ten” whose suspected membership in the Communist Party would land him before the House Un-American Activities Committee, followed by a year in jail for contempt of Congress – “As far as I was concerned, it was a completely just verdict. I had full contempt for that Congress” – Christopher Trumbo draws a sympathetic portrait of a man whose letters from jail testified to a spirit unbowed, and a wit both wicked and childlike. It is these letters, some of which seem as carefully crafted as had they been intended for performance or publication – and they were in fact published, six years before Trumbo’s death – which drive the play, at times with a power, lyricism and stamina evoking the oratory traditions of ancient Greece.
As Dalton Trumbo, Nigel Reed visibly relishes the role, alternately outraged, phlegmatic, and ruminative. Previous Trumbos have included Steve Martin, Brian Dennehy and Paul Newman: big shoes to fill, and Reed fills them admirably. Tossing off bons mots and scathing judgments with seeming ease in a rapid-fire patter recalling the heyday of Hawks and Sturges, he is as effective when excoriating with deadly calm the principal of his daughter’s elementary school for allowing the child to become the subject of a whispering campaign aimed at her parents, as he is when cheerfully counseling his son on the joys of onanism, via the book, “Sex Without Guilt,” penned “by a man who will take his place in history as the greatest humanitarian since Mahatma Gandhi.”
And then, there is another side, exemplified by the excruciatingly delicate letter he writes to the family of a wartime buddy, a fellow correspondent who had agreed to allow his name to be used as a “front” for the disgraced Trumbo, whose name, by fiat of the major studios, could not appear onscreen. Upon the man’s untimely death, how to tell them that their boy did not, in fact, write the script, and that the credit – and, perhaps even more important to the increasingly desperate Trumbo, who is forbidden to work – the money he had received, should, at least in part, now go to Trumbo? You could have heard a pin drop as, with inexpressible pain, his words trailed off in quiet tribute to his dead, and cherished, friend.
It would be 13 years before his name would again appear in movie credits, when he was hired by Kirk Douglas to write the screenplay for Spartacus and by Otto Preminger for Exodus, in 1960.
Watching this litany of pain, the question arises: Why didn’t he just answer the Committee’s seemingly harmless question as to whether he was a member of the Screen Actors Guild? An answer comes from Trumbo himself, in a screen clip, and from actress Marsha Hunt, who was similarly blacklisted although not called to testify, in the German film, Dalton Trumbo: Rebel in Hollywood.
It was fundamentally a matter of principle and precedent, says Trumbo: “We wanted to challenge the right of the Committee to ask such questions,” because they could be the first step on a slippery slope that could end in compromising the rights of citizens to basic protections.
It was a time, says Hunt, when newspapers across the country were filled with false allegations that Hollywood was filled with communists; for Dalton Trumbo, “the highest paid screenwriter in the industry,” to fall into HUAC’s net was both surprising and disturbing. It was very brave of writers to allow their names to be used for films that were actually written by Trumbo, says Hunt. “Because if it came out that that writer didn’t actually write the script, that writer was finished.” And yet they did it, at the risk to their own careers and livelihoods.
While their acts were certainly courageous, little was black and white in the life and career of Dalton Trumbo, or in “Trumbo: Red, White and Blacklisted,” least of all the man himself. “At my father’s memorial service,” begins Christopher – played with a deft touch by Jonathan Watkins – “Ring Lardner said of him: ‘At rare intervals, there appears among us a person whose virtues are so manifest to all … that he is revered and loved by everyone with whom he comes in contact.
‘Such a man Dalton Trumbo was not.'”
Running Time: 1:40
When: August 27 – September 28, Wednesday – Thursday at 7:30, Friday at 8:00, Saturday at 2:30 and 8:00, Sunday at 2:30
Where: Studio Theatre, Howard Community College, 10901 Little Patuxent Parkway, Columbia, Maryland 21044
Tickets: $15 – $25, Wednesdays at 7:30 pay-what-you-can, with student tickets available at $12 for any one show.
Call: Rep Stage Box Office, 410-772-4900, or go to their website.