Monday, April 8, 2013

Powerful Political Theatre at EST

Finks is a powerful piece of theatre with a lot of laughs. 

For those who would look across the oceans at other countries that curtail the freedoms, physical and intellectual, of their citizenry, and say, “that couldn’t happen here”:  Well, it did, it has, and doubtless will again.  While this is no place for a history lesson, suffice to say that when World War II ended some people still needed an enemy.  Those who feared that our former ally, the Soviet Union, could infest our government, schools, lives with infiltrators to subvert the American way, decided to attack people who either were or had been members of the Communist Party in the U.S., or appeared to sympathize with them.  Thus was born the House Un-American Activities Committee (“HUAC”), one of the most un-American things I’ve ever heard of.  (There are others, but that’s for another time.)

Madeleine Lee Gilford and Jack Gilford
The Ensemble Studio Theatre and The Radio Drama Network produced Finks at EST, which tells the story of two performers, Mickey and Natalie, who in real life translate to Jack Gilford and Madeleine Lee Gilford.  Other characters don’t align precisely with just one person during the McCarthy Era, but I guarantee you’ll be looking up actors, directors, choreographers from the early 1950s when you get home after seeing Finks.  The story of the play resonates as if we were transported back to 1951 as flies on the wall.  Looking back, we know the Gilfords survived their ordeals, if only by watching Mr. Gilford’s work in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum with Zero Mostel, who was also “blacklisted” for most of the decade.  Nevertheless, careers were derailed and these victims and their families were punished for the better part of a decade for no crime.  The “blacklist” (which was really a booklet called Red Channels listing whomever was named by anyone) was enforced by private corporations like Proctor and Gamble and Kellogg’s who pressured radio and television networks not to employee actors named in the book.  The sickness that was the McCarthy Era touched education and politics as well.

Finks is a well-structured play, intriguing, and well written by Jack and Madeleine Gilford’s son, the playwright Joe Gilford.  The action goes back and forth between the Committee meeting room (its heavy wooden desk always present onstage and hovering), the club where we first see Mickey perform, Mickey and Natalie’s home, theaters, clubs, living rooms.  Giovanna Sardelli directed briskly, creating with her actors the right rhythm for each scene.  Choreography by Greg Graham was fun and exciting and perfectly performed by Miriam Silverman as Natalie and Leo Ash Evens as Bobby.  The storytelling is electric, building to the explosive events of the HUAC hearings and winding down to the denouement of unemployment because of the blacklist.  The scenic design by Jason Simms was clever and simple enough to fit many locations, and Sydney Maresca’s costume design was on the mark, as was Jill BC DuBoff’s sound design.

Leo Ash Evens as Bobby and Miriam Silverman as Natalie.  (c) 2013 Gerry Goodstein.
Aaron Serotsky was excellent as Mickey Dobbs (a.k.a. Gilford), a stand-up comic, singer, and actor, on the way up in the entertainment world. When he meets and falls for Natalie, he describes her perfectly as “Emma Goldman in Paulette Goddard’s body.”  Serotsky’s depiction of Mickey is simple and sweet, and we care deeply for him as he struggles to maintain his career while remaining true to his beliefs — he’s not demonstrative the way Natalie is, but once he’s with her, he’s with her all the way.   

Aaron Serotsky as Mickey, Ned Eisenberg as Fred, and Miriam Silverman as Natalie.  (c) 2013 Gerry Goodstein
The tireless Natalie — actress, singer, dancer, activist and steadfastly loyal friend — was played by Miriam Silverman with gusto, enormous energy, warmth, and certainty.  Natalie and her dancing partner and friend Bobby (Leo Ash Evens) created a small group within the actors’ union who leaned left to seek aid for those in need.  She was also Bobby’s beard, which is all swell until someone (read lawyers working with the Committee) blackmails Bobby.  The list of people who named names back then is shocking, and when it is enacted before us — friends naming friends — it is heartbreaking.  Finks is what they are to Natalie, with no sympathy for their human weakness.  Mickey has more empathy, perhaps fearing he hasn’t the personal courage to stand up to the Committee.  Ned Eisenberg is just marvelous as Fred Lang (a combination character, including Zero Mostel, but without Mostel’s survival ability) — funny, angry, and frightened, a man who eloquently took the 1st* — as had the Hollywood Ten — and was, along with many others, sent to prison for it.  Eisenberg looks nothing like Lou Costello but does a fine impersonation of him.  Finally it’s Mickey’s turn in front of the Committee, and we hold our breath, as uncertain as he is, waiting to see how he will answer the call. 

Eisenberg, Serotsky, Silverman, and Michael Cullen.  (c) 2013 Gerry Goodstein.
All performances were excellent, with some actors playing and clearly differentiating multiple roles, including Thomas Lyons, Kenney M. Green, and Jason Liebman.  Michael Cullen was straightforward as the self-assured Representative Walter bullying all who came before him. 

This is seriously good theatre, worth the walk (or cab) to 11th and 52nd Street.  Finks is only running to the 21st April at EST (, so put it in your schedule.

* Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

~ Molly Matera, signing off.  There’s so much more reading to do about what happens when we’re not looking….

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