The Internet Theater Magazine of Reviews, Features, Annotated Listings


SEARCH CurtainUp



Etcetera and
Short Term Listings



LA/San Diego






Free Updates
A CurtainUp Review


The blacklist was a time of evil. No one on either side who survived it came through untouched by evil. There was bad faith and good, honesty and dishonesty, courage and cowardice, selflessness and opportunism, wisdom and stupidity, good and bad on both sides. It will do no good to search for villains or heroes or saints or devils because there were none; there were only victims. Some suffered less than others, some grew or were diminished, but in the final tally we were all victims because almost without exception each of us felt compelled to say things he did not want to say, to do things he did not want to do, to deliver and receive wounds he truly did not want to exchange. That is why none of us -- right, left, or center -- emerged from that long nightmare without sin.
---Dalton Trumbo, upon receiving the Writers Guild Laurel Award for career achievement.

Nathan Lane as   Dalton Trumbo
Gordon MacDonald & Nathan Lane (Photo: Joan Marcus)
It would have been easy for Dalton Trumbo (1905-1976) to use the ceremony at which he received the Writers Guild Laurel Award for career achievement for a triumphant, finger pointing speech. Instead, the colorful survivor of the 1940s and 1950s the House Un-American Activities Committee witchhunts opted to take a broader view, per the quoted excerpt above.

Not all the writers known as the Hollywood Ten applauded Trumbo's view that the informants were as much victims of this dark period in history as those whose careers were eclipsed. But Dalton Trumbo was, like his frontier forefathers, an individualist, a man who more committed to free speech than any organization. He also brought the frontier man's vitality and energy to his work. Despite imprisonment and blacklisting (which forced him to use front men instead of his own by-line) he left a large legacy of influential films that included Kitty Foyle, Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo , Exodus, Spartacus, Roman Holiday, The Brave One and Gun Crazy. He also wrote novels, Johnny Get Your Gun, being the best known, and a treasure trove of letters. It is from these letters that his son, Christopher Trumbo, has created a theater piece that not only documents still relevant events, but fully and entertainingly brings to life the feisty wit and humanity of one man who was caught up in them.

The play's foundation stones are the letters, with the late writer's on stage alter ego reading them (Nathan Lane until September 21st and thereafter with rotating stars). Some of the most memorable are what you might call the Father letters: an outraged letter to the school that tarred and feathered his young daughter's psyche with the same brush that wiped out her father's career . . . and a priceless epistle accompanying a brown wrapper packed copy of Dr. Albert Ellis's Sex Without Guilt which he found "a fresh new approach to subject of masturbation - a fresh new wind under the sheets, so to speak. . . " There are also missiles fired off to creditors, foes, and colleagues, one of the most amusing in the last category being a lengthy epistle to Ring Lardner Jr. about an in-the-works critique of a book on which he wanted Trumbo's opinion.

With the letters as stage props there's no need to memorize the text but since Trumbo wrote essay-like, meaty letters this is very much an acting rather than reading performance. Nathan Lane's delivery of the text is splendidly nuanced, transitioning seamlessly between wry humor, irony, bewilderment and passion. Director Peter Askin does allow Lane some shtik, as when the letter accompanying the Albert Ellis book prompts him to act out his own youthful attempt to control his private sexual habits, but the actor never upstages his character.

The one-way nature of the correspondence and tethering the actor to a desk so he can read from the script does make for a static situation. The playwright circumvents this with a secondary character, a stand-in for himself to act as narrator, and at one point as a government interrogator in an acted out replay of Trumbo's appearance before the House Unamerican Committee (Gordon MacDonald giving a likeable, understated performance). To further enhance the theatricality, there are two screens for authentic film clips (a few more would have been in order), Loy Arcenas' handsome set that accommodates a trial setting as well as book-lined study Jeff Croiter's warm lighting to accompany the shifting moods and settings.

Wearing a blue pin-striped suit and with his typical slicked-down hair with its ruler straight part, Lane makes no effort to look more like Trumbo-- nor does the production make a big deal of his habit of lolling in the bathtub where he was said to spend many working hours. But Trumbo comes to vivid life nevertheless. The portrait may have some of the personality warts air brushed out by a loving son. Some of the adjectives with Ring Lardner Jr. described Trumbo -- "greedy, vain, ruthless, devious, shortsighted"-- are mentioned but the emphasis is on . . .  and "altruisticc." Eyxcellent as Lane's performance is, it's easy to see that Trumbo has enough substance to be worth seeing with the other stars who will rotate in the part after his September 21st departure (as the likes of Ed Harris and Tim Robbins already did during a brief, previous Monday night run) -- shades of this theater's recent tenant, The Vagina Monlogues.

The blacklists erased Dalton Trumbo's by-line for too many years. Even if the tables had not been turned and the HUAC committee discredited while the disenfranchised Hollywood Ten were once again given their due, it's clear that Dalton Trumbo was always recognized as a great dad by his son.

Written by Christopher Trumbo
Directed by Peter Askin
Cast: Nathan Lane (through 9/21-- to be followed by alternating stars); Gordon MacDonald, as Narrrator/Christopher
Set Design: Loy Arcenas
Lighting Design: Jeff Croiter
Original Music and Sound Design: John Gromada
Video Design: Dennis Diamond
Running time: 90 minutes without intermission
Westside Theatre, 407 W. 43rd St., 212/ 239-6200
Tuesday-Saturdays at 8 PM, Wednesday and Saturday matinees at 2:30 PM, Sundays at 3 PM -- $65
8/26/03; opening 9/04
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on September 2 performance

Mendes at the Donmar
Our Review

At This Theater Cover
At This Theater

Leonard Maltin's 2003 Movie and Video Guide
Leonard Maltin's 2003 Movie and Video Guide

Ridiculous! The Theatrical Life and Times of Charles Ludlam
Ridiculous!The Theatrical Life & Times of Charles Ludlam

Somewhere For Me, a Biography of Richard Rodgers
Somewhere For Me, a Biography of Richard Rodgers

The New York Times Book of Broadway: On the Aisle for the Unforgettable Plays of the Last Century
The New York Times Book of Broadway: On the Aisle for the Unforgettable Plays of the Last Century

metaphors dictionary cover
6, 500 Comparative Phrases including 800 Shakespearean Metaphors by CurtainUp's editor.
Click image to buy.
Go here for details and larger image.

The Broadway Theatre Archive


Information from this site may not be reproduced in print or online without specific permission from