'Finks': Theater Review

John Perrin Flynn
French Stewart and cast in 'Finks'
Smart and polished and all too timely.
12/30/2018

French and Vanessa Claire Stewart excel in the Los Angeles premiere of Joe Gilford's absorbing look at the Hollywood blacklist, based on the persecution of his own actor parents.

When playwright Joe Gilford sat down to write Finks, he needed look no further than his own family for inspiration. His father and mother, Jack and Madeline Lee Gilford, were persecuted in the early 1950s, subpoenaed to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee. The episode derailed their acting careers, but Jack recovered and had a successful run in television in subsequent decades, even earning an Oscar nomination for his work in 1973's Save the Tiger. Their story, from an encounter in a nightclub to a baby and a mortgage, is at the heart of Joe’s witty, warm and dramatic paean to his parents.

Always at the center of the party is Natalie Meltzer (Vanessa Claire Stewart), an actor and fundraiser for progressive causes that others might look on as Communist. A targeted recruit, to the cause and to her heart, is standup comedian Mickey Dunn, masterfully captured by French Stewart, a guy who sums up the paranoiac malaise of the era in a single gag: "Red Buttons is so terrified, he changed his name to Blue."

When screenwriter Martin Berkeley (Thomas Fiscella) testifies before the committee — represented by scenic designer Stephanie Kerley Schwartz’s no-nonsense pair of desks, chairs and an array of microphones — he names 150 people, including Dorothy Parker, Ring Lardner Jr., Lillian Hellman and Dashiell Hammett. Aware of the danger, but not too concerned, Natalie continues recruiting and even schedules appearances for Mickey, often against his will.

Gilford's dialogue resonates like movies from the period, witty and engaging without tripping into pastiche, and he even manages to slip in Will Rogers’ quip, "I’m not a member of any organized political party. I’m a Democrat." That joke feels natural amid the playwright’s own gems, as when Natalie recalls her estranged father, "He left us for a more unpleasant person in a smaller apartment."

The couple goes through good times, dancing and singing to Rose Marie Jun's "Sing Me a Song With Social Significance," and bad times, as when a subpoena is issued for their dancer friend, Bobby Gerard (Adam Lebowitz-Lockard). (Real-life choreographer Jerome Robbins named the Gilfords in his testimony.)

The playwright is smart enough to recognize that those guilty of turning on their peers are not offenders but victims. The real guilty parties are Joseph McCarthy and cronies like Richard Nixon and Robert Kennedy. In the end, Mickey and Natalie don’t name names, and are left suffering enough to wonder if they did the right thing.

Following a successful career in television, French Stewart (3rd Rock From the Sun) has found a second, and fruitful career, working with his wife Vanessa in local theater, starring as Buster Keaton in her critically acclaimed 2013 bio-drama, Stoneface. Under the direction of Michael Pressman (To Gillian on Her 37th Birthday, Picket Fences), son of blacklisted director David Pressman, the couple enjoys natural chemistry, rhythmically playing off one another.

The director counterintuitively centers their energy in Natalie, and not her stand-up comedian husband, creating an unexpected dynamic in which she drives the action. Their scenes are paced with the rat-a-tat tempo of a Howard Hawks rom-com, but Pressman keeps the drama grounded in real and impending calamity.

The Stewarts benefit from a solid supporting cast led by Bruce Nozick, bringing urgency and purpose to the proceedings as the ill-fated Fred Lang. There's understated dignity in Lebowitz-Lockard's portrayal of choreographer Bobby Gerard, a leftist bisexual doubly vulnerable to HUAC probes. And Matt Gottlieb is obligingly callow as Rep. Walter, casually persecuting his witnesses with a minor show of severity, contradicting the harsh punishment meted out to those deemed hostile.

First produced in New York in 2008, Finks is receiving its Los Angeles premiere in this Rogue Machine production, and is currently being developed as a TV series. At a time when most young audiences identify the blacklist as a show starring James Spader, the play might seem irrelevant. But with the muzzling of political dissent and rising authoritarian forces pitted against idealistic progressive voices, maybe there's no better time than the present for this historical reminder.

Venue: Electric Lodge, Los Angeles
Cast: Daniel Dorr, Thomas, Fiscella, Matt Gottlieb, Stephen Tyler Howell, Adam Lebowitz-Lockard, Richard Levinson, Bruce Nozick, Vanessa Claire Stewart, French Stewart
Director: Michael Pressman
Playwright: Joe Gilford
Set designer: Stephanie Kerley Schwartz
Costume designer: Halei Parker
Lighting designer: Matt Richter
Sound designer: Christopher Moscatiello
Projection designer: Nicholas E. Santiago
Choreographer: Marwa Bernstein

Music director: Richard Levinson
Presented by Rogue Machine, by special arrangement with Dramatists Play Service