“Finks” shows how one famous family survived McCarthyism

By Ande Jacobson

TheatreWorks’ current offering is a riveting family history reaching back into one of the darkest times in living memory. Playwright Joe Gilford, son of Jack and Madeline Gilford, tells his parents’ harrowing tale through his 2013 play, Finks, currently on stage at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts. His parents, like many of their friends in the entertainment industry, were brought up before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) to testify in the early 1950s. They were bullied by the committee in an attempt to get them to turn on, or “fink” on their friends and loved ones as many in the industry did to reclaim their careers after being blacklisted for holding “subversive” beliefs. Those subversive beliefs were what today would be considered pro-labor or progressive.

While nobody in government would admit to there actually being a blacklist, the Red Channels Report embodied such a list in pamphlet form. Red Channels: The Report of Communist Influence in Radio and Television was an anti-Communist diatribe issued by the right-wing journal Counterattack in June 1950. Although it wasn’t a government list, this treatise fed the zealous congressional stance against the individuals listed in the report, and by extension, their friends, families, and associates. Being put on “the list” meant that the television networks and production companies wouldn’t hire you. Since film and television was where the money was in entertainment at the time, the committee put a stranglehold on many performing artists. The only way off the list was to give the committee what it wanted, more names of people to persecute.

Gilford’s play uses actual testimony in the congressional hearing segments, some of it compressed for effect. The cast is based on slightly fictionalized characters representing composites of real people just trying to make a living and speak out for their ideals. The story jumps back and forth between entertainment venues (including a radio station, a nightclub, and stage / film sets), apartments, and the congressional hearing room. The action sometimes takes place simultaneously in the hearing room and in other locations either preparing for appearances before the committee, or refuting or evading allegations thrown at them. Some of the evasion tactics are very amusing, in one case claiming protection from the 1st Amendment, or citing several other Amendments with interesting, yet seemingly valid justifications.

The first staging of the play occurred in 2008 as a joint venture between Vassar College and New York Stage and Film Company. The script was published in 2013, the same year it made its Off-Broadway debut.

Director Giovanna Sardelli helmed the Off-Broadway production as well as this TheatreWorks West Coast Premiere of the work, and her staging is gripping. Her TheatreWorks cast includes: George Psarras (Café Society Pianist/Sergeant-at-Arms), Jim Stanek (Mickey Dobbs), Robert Sicular (Representative Francis Walter), Gabriel Marin (Fred Lang), Richard Frederick (Martin Berkeley/Phil Larson/Lee J. Cobb/et al), Michael Barrett Austin (Victor Lynch/Stanley/Elia Kazan/Budd Schulberg/et al), Donna Vivino (Natalie Meltzer), and Leo Ash Evens (Bobby Gerard).

While Stanek and Vivino’s characters represent Jack and Madeline Gilford, their characters are slightly fictionalized to add some conflict and dimension to their plight. In real life, Joe Gilford reports that his parents were neither conflicted, nor wavering in their commitment to their beliefs, unlike a few of their friends who eventually caved to save themselves from the committee’s threats. Evens’ Bobby Gerard is clearly a dramatization of Jerome Robbins, a man tormented by severe internal conflicts given the committee threatens him with exposure far beyond being blacklisted. Gerard reacts as Robbins did in real life.

In the opening sequence, Mickey’s nightclub act takes place opposite the opening of the hearings. As the hearings gear up, Sicular’s Walter makes a powerful opening statement beginning with:

“On behalf of this committee I want to state that this is not a witch-hunt. We are entrusted here by The Internal Security Act of 1950….”

Through the lens of history, these proceedings seem to be very much a witch-hunt, and one that was thought to be behind us as a nation at the time the play was published. Sadly, just a scant half decade later, the events in the play seem much more relevant again in today’s divided society.

Humor is liberally sprinkled throughout the script, some of it gallows humor effectively capturing the hopelessness of the moment and the hope for a freer future once the panic passes, if it indeed does pass. The ensemble is very credible in their portrayals nicely capturing the fear and belief in their cause. Vivino and Stanek play nicely off of one another, dramatizing the meeting and deepening affection in their characters’ personal lives together.

Andrea Bechert’s scenic design lays out the locations in an attractive lattice separated by levels and texture. A flag from the early 1950s (showing 48 stars) adorns the wall immediately behind the table mid-stage center for those testifying to the committee. The Café Society nightclub is indicated by the presence of an on-stage piano slightly stage right. Psarras plays some lovely incidental music in the club and elsewhere to enhance the mood. The club performance space takes place downstage right and center. A couch, which is moved from one side to the other, signifies various apartments.

Steven B. Mannshardt’s lighting design is extremely effective. With the scene movement being so fluid, the lighting quickly draws audience focus to the heart of the story being told at each moment, adding shading to easily distinguish the level of danger in each location.

Music Director Jonathan Erman balances some recordings (made live during rehearsal) with Psarras’ on-stage piano work. In the mix are two Harold Rome societal anthems including: “Sing me a Song with Social Significance” and “The Investigator’s Song”. The exit music adds a nice touch by including music from the show that marked Jack Gilford’s return to the Broadway stage and film, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.

Finks is a powerful, thought-provoking play that would benefit many communities. No matter which side of the political and ideological spectrum one is on, it never hurts to see how one’s actions can affect others. This play shows how tenuous some of the freedoms we occasionally take for granted can be.

What:  Finks, by Joe Gilford

Where:  Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro Street, Mountain View

When:  Continues through 1 July 2018

See Finks, email boxoffice@theatreworks.org, or call (650)463-1960 for more information or to order tickets.

(Photos courtesy of Kevin Berne/TheatreWorks)

Reference and further study:

Finks, by Joe Gilford / Dramatist’s Play Service

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