BY JOHN ANGELL GRANT
Daily Post Theater Reviewer
Joe Gilford wrote a play about his parents’ participation in left-wing theater activities in the 1940s. It focuses on the Hollywood blacklist that ensued, and subsequent requests to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1953.
TheatreWorks opened a Peninsula production of the show, titled “FINKS,” over the weekend (June 8-10) at Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts.
Many careers were ruined in the process of creating the Hollywood blacklist, and there is still much gray area in the historical analysis. It was a contentious period in 20th century American history.
The anti-Communism movement
Whittaker Chambers, for example, wrote about it at length in his fascinating memoir “Witness.”
Growing up in a poor New York family, and later attending an Ivy League school, Chambers was an American communist turned government whistle-blower, who reported to Congress on Communist meetings that included Alger Hiss, a high-level State Department official. Hiss denied the accusations.
Chambers ended up a pawn of the U.S. political right, dying a sad and relatively early death. He was a man of ideals, whose ideals forsook him. His is a complicated story.
“FINKS” is also a story about ideals. Here New York actress Natalie (Donna Vivino) recruits fellow theater workers to engage in left-wing political meetings associated with the Communist Party. Some of her co-workers are enthusiastic; others less so.
One beau she has her eye on, Mickey (Jim Stanek), is lukewarm. He is not so much interested in politics, as he is interested in her.
The play then jumps around through many short scenes. Locations include the congressional hearings; Natalie’s various radio commercials and soap opera gigs; Mickey’s cabaret stand-up shows; political gatherings with theater folks; blossoming romance between Natalie and Mickey; and Natalie’s flirtation with her gay choreographer boyfriend Bobby (Leo Ash Evens).
People who testify before Congress include Elia Kazan, Lee J. Cobb, Budd Schulberg and others.
Director Giovanna Sardelli’s Mountain View production opens with Mickey’s stand-up bits in a New York cabaret. But his bits are not funny, and it is unclear whether that is intentional.
One of the show’s themes is that truth-bending can be used to generate political attack on good people. That mechanism is still operating at full force in the American political landscape of 2018.
A romance or political story?
“FINKS,” however, can’t decide if it’s a romance or a political story. It gets pulled back and forth between the two. And the political part is more melodrama than drama, except perhaps for the very end of the show. In general, the evening’s second act is stronger than the first.
The author’s parents lived through this era, and his play is an homage to their story. But while I’m sympathetic to the issues, “FINKS” seems like an overly simplified version of a very complex time.
For tickets and information visit theatreworks.org, or call (650) 463-1960.
John Angell Grant is the Daily Post’s theater critic. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.