He was writing about the beef between the Queen Mum and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, but he might as well have been writing about Benny and Leo, the antagonists in Jeffrey Sweet's intelligent and funny play "The Value of Names."The crisis in the play comes when Norma, Benny's fledgling actress daughter, gets a part in a play that will be directed by Leo, Benny's ex-friend. The two had an Arthur Miller/Elia Kazan-like falling out when Leo named names before the House UnAmerican Activities Committee to save his own hide, which derailed Benny's acting career for too many years. The mess is the result of misfortune; Norma's original director had to leave the play. When she finds out Leo's taking over, she wonders if she should drop the part out of loyalty to her Dad. By the way, she's dropping Benny's name in favor of her mother's maiden name; he's just too famous, and she wants to be successful through her own merits.Norma and Benny have a contentious, loving relationship; their bantering is delightful and the audience knows that neither her name change or whatever decision she makes about the play is going to destroy their bond. The sparks really fly when Leo, who has enough of an ego to not let an actor drop out of his play without a fight, shows up at Benny's lush Malibu digs (kudos to set designer Evelyn Sakash) to woo Norma, who's bivouacking there for the time being. Benny and Leo's bond has been destroyed long since: Will they make up, or at least come to some kind of understanding?The play works because of Sweet's witty dialogue and James Glossman's assured direction, helped by Sakash's set design (which makes you think, 'Benny didn't do too bad after all, why can't he forgive if not forget?') Richard Latta's California-bright lighting design, and Bettina Bierly's costumes - the crisp newness of Benny's deck shoes also makes you think he protests too much. But the actors are brilliant and engaging. Megan Muckelmann's Norma is both defiant and vulnerable as the young woman who loves her father but wants to advance her career; she doesn't yet have the power to tell Leo to get lost. Louis Zorich refuses to allow you to think of the silver-maned, physically imposing Leo as simply a rat, as that other famous director, Elia Kazan, was not simply a rat. Leo too, wanted to keep his hard-earned career. Besides, HUAC already had the names of the people he betrayed. He plays wonderfully off of Jack Klugman's Benny, and you can see the kind of relationship they had, and could have had. Klugman is amazing. As a great comedian, his timing is perfect, as is his control of the emotions - rage, tenderness, comic bewilderment, sarcasm - that flash, one after another, over his handsome, bloodhound face. Much has been made of Klugman's voice, which he frankly doesn't have much of. He had an operation for cancer of the larynx a while back and his voice has been reduced to a raspy whisper. But he uses even this; if he had Zorich's great booming baritone he wouldn't be nearly as moving. We couldn't hear him speak of the utter psychological desolation that besets an actor who is unable to act ("I am an exile to myself!") without thinking of the fabulous house with its shelf full of Emmys behind him. With that voice, we only think of Benny, and his pain."The Value of Names" is a warm-hearted and thought provoking work. It's going to be at Queens Theatre in the Park till March 27.
©2005 Community News Group
By submitting this comment, you agree to the following terms: