Written by Joe Gilford
Directed by Giovanna Sardelli
TheatreWorks Silicon Valley
The ugly political and social damages caused by McCarthyism and the Red Scare of the 1940’s and 50’s is dramatically and poignantly addressed in TheatreWorks revival of Joe Gilford’s loving tribute to his parents, comedian/actor Jack Gilford and actress/producer Madeline Lee. Directed once again by Giovanna Sardelli, Finks brilliantly distills the essence of the period where loyalties were tested, careers destroyed, and civil liberty tested to its breaking limits.
Mickey Dobbs (Jim Stanek) is the emcee at New York City’s Café Society, plying his unique brand of Yiddish theater, burlesque and vaudeville. His friends include leftist leaning artists and he’ll occasionally perform at a meeting or two. Into his life roars Natalie Meltzer (Donna Vivino), a strident activist who can’t take the politic out of her every motivation. Their romance provides the backstory to the horrors that would befall them and their comrades when the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) began their assault on ‘subversives’.
Natalie and choreographer Bobby (Leo Ash Evens) are married in convenience only. He’s gay and desperate to keep that hushed. Their good friend Fred (Gabriel Marin) is an artist and actor who will pay the ultimate price for standing true to his beliefs. Up against the ruthless Chairman of HUAC Francis Walter (Robert Sicular) and attorney Victor Lynch (Michael Barret Austin), the members of the Actor’s Faction will go through the gamut of emotions as their livelihood is challenged. Richard Frederick plays a host of characters as does George Psarras.
Compatriots become turncoats or finks, as one by one, they are called before the committee to testify. Dobbs is in love with Natalie, but can their relationship survive such pressure. Accusations become final judgements and being ‘cleared’ of suspicions can be bought for a price.
Gilford’s writing is astute and clever. He’s so close to the material, you can feel the authenticity in every character’s lines. Mickey says Natalie is “Emma Goldman with the body of Paulette Goddard”. When Natalie falls for Mickey, she says “once the sex kicks in, all else is bullshit”, humorously attributing the quote to Nikolai Bukharin, the famous Bolshevik. There’s a brilliant faux Abbott & Costello skit portraying the ridiculousness of scrutiny by AWARE, Inc, one of the private firms that examined individuals for signs of communist “disloyalty”.
All of this is wonderfully portrayed by a stellar cast under the knowing direction of Sardelli. Andrea Bechert’s set design transforms into the courtroom, the nightclub, an office and a living room by the movement of the cast and the fine lighting by Steven B. Mannshardt and sound design by Jake Rodriguez.
Finks great strength is its heartfelt personalization of a dark period of US history that we can only read about in books or see in old newsreel footage. The list of attacked artists is long and heartbreaking. The Red and Lavender Scare was as dark a period in US history as the ongoing racism we see daily. Jack and Madeline (Mickey and Natalie) were real people who suffered immeasurable pain and agony. Their son’s beautiful testament to their spirit may help gird us through any contemporary assaults on our rights.
Finks continues through July 1st, 2018 at Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro Street, Mountain View. Tickets are available online at http://www.theatreworks.org or by calling 650-463-1960.
Photo credits by Kevin Berne.