NEW YORK—Playwright Joe Gilford’s “Finks” is a fictionalized telling of his parents’ experiences during the horrific 1950s blacklisting period. His father was Jack Gilford, a comic and TV and theater actor. His mother, Madeline Lee Gilford, was a TV and radio actress.
Their names fictionalized here, Mickey (Aaron Serotsky), first seen as a nightclub comic, catches the eye and amorous attention of the attractive Natalie (Miriam Silverman). That she is already married doesn’t deter her from pursuing Mickey.
Soon the two are not only romantically involved, but Natalie, a strong political activist, entices Mickey to perform at various organizations’ functions and to become more and more ensconced in political activities.
These organizations seem innocent enough; in fact, they all announce themselves to be strongly democratic and in favor of justice and fair play. But this is the ’50s. Blacklisting has reared its ugly head; people are being called in to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC).
The couple are at first oblivious to what’s going on politically. They know they have done nothing wrong, and besides, they are small potatoes compared to the important writers and actors being brought in to testify.
Mickey and Natalie marry and continue to pursue their careers and socialize with close friends. In their set is Bobby, a terrific dancer and choreographer (beautifully danced, sung, and acted by Leo Ash Evens). Another dear friend is Fred Lang (Ned Eisenberg), a comic and actor who has worked closely with Mickey.
Domestic and performance scenes are interspersed with the committee hearings, presided over by Rep. Walter (Michael Cullen). These scenes bristle with tension, as various luminaries are brought in for questioning.
Witnesses include film and theater director Elia Kazan, who wholeheartedly cooperates with the committee by naming those who have attended various meetings with him. Actor Lee J. Cobb, who has not worked in three years, appears and names names. These characters are played variously by Jason Liebman, who also plays the lawyer Lynch, and Thomas Lyons, who also portrays Mickey’s agent.
Fred, called to testify, deliberately chooses to honor a Constitutional amendment that he knows will not win his freedom. He is imprisoned. Soon after his release he commits suicide. (Suicide had actually been the choice of at least one actor pursued by the blacklisting scourge: Phil Loeb of the TV series “The Goldbergs,” for example).
Just as Mickey and Natalie become more successful in their careers—Mickey is set to have his own TV show, and Natalie is doing well in a TV soap—the blacklisting noose tightens, and the pair is called to testify before HUAC.
Natalie, who by now has had a baby, challenges the committee in a provocative scene. She is released (some were sent to prison), but it is clear she will have difficulty finding work.
Mickey blatantly defies the committee, and the play ends with negative hints of the future.
Although episodic, with generally brief, almost movie-like scenes, the play holds together beautifully under the taut direction of Giovanna Sardelli. Also on view are entertaining segments of comedy routines and a sharp Lindy dance sequence.
Gilford’s script also cites actual people and organizations that made up the blacklisting: Aware Inc., an organization that ferreted out alleged Communists or communist sympathizers; Red Channels, a publication that listed the presumed guilty; TV sponsors who capitulated to viewers who ranted against anything that they thought had to do with communism; the networks who gave in to pressure and fired actors and writers wholesale, without due process.
The simple but serviceable set by Jason Simms works; Sydney Maresca’s costumes beautifully capture the period, especially Silverman’s dresses.
Performances are top rate, especially those of the major players: Miriam Silverman, Aaron Serotsky, Leo Ash Evens, and Ned Eisenberg. Making fine contributions are Michael Cullen, Thomas Lyons, Jason Liebman, and Kenney M. Green, who doubles as an actor and Piano Player.
Co-produced by The Ensemble Studio Theatre and The Radio Drama Network, “Finks” makes for an exciting and informative evening in the theater.
Ensemble Studio Theatre
549 West 52nd Street
Tickets: 866-811-4111 or visit ensemblestudiotheatre.org
Running Time: 2 hours, 20 minutes
Closes: April 21
Diana Barth publishes New Millennium, an arts publication. For information: [email protected].