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Un-American activities

'Finks' sheds light on dark Hollywood history

Joe Gilford's script for "Finks," his slightly fictionalized story of what his parents (comics and activists Jack Gilford and Madeline Lee Gilford) experienced during the Hollywood blacklistings of the 1950s, does a clever thing. Rather than just subject his audience to the grim history of how the communist-and-deviant-hunting House Un-American Activities Committee ruined hundreds of entertainment careers, Gilford shows us the entertainment.

So, TheatreWorks Silicon Valley audiences get to hear some jokes from Mickey Dobbs (Jim Stanek), who is loosely based on Jack Gilford, and see him do a hilarious pantomime of a theater-goer bothered by a buzzing insect, based on a bit that Gilford actually did. And they get to see some lovely dancing (choreographed by Dottie Lester-White) from Leo Ash Evens. Evens plays Bobby Gerard, who is based on Jerome Robbins.

"Finks" opens on Andrea Bechert's handsome, huge set with the dais of HUAC in the center, a modest recreation of the club Café Society in New York at audience left and another space at audience right that is used later.

We hear the HUAC sergeant at arms call a hearing to order, and Robert Sicular, as Rep. Walter, begin his political babble, just as comic Mickey is starting his routine at Café Society.

Mickey does a very good Jimmy Durante imitation, and Walter starts interrogating such "finks" as Elia Kazan, Budd Schulberg and Martin Berkeley.

The show's only woman, Donna Vivino, is a force of nature as performer/organizer Natalie Meltzer, who sets out to win Mickey's love. "I'm laying out lines like railroad tracks!" she says. "Connect the dots!"

Mickey and all their entertainer friends are worried about being caught up in the Red Scare, and they have reason to be. If their names appear in the magazine Red Channels or in a bad way in Walter Winchell's column, club owners may cut their contracts and advertisers might start boycotting their TV shows.

Bobby has two issues: He did attend some meetings of leftist performers and he's gay, which in the 1950s was very dangerous.

Natalie, who has been Bobby's "beard" and sometimes his lover, tries to buck him up. Evens has a grim role to play, because while Bobby staves off HUAC for a while, when he's blackmailed for his homosexuality, he's forced to start naming names, including Mickey and Natalie's.

Mickey is kind of a fraidy cat in this show, who has to be coerced by Natalie not only into loving her, but performing at meetings of left-leaning actors and otherwise speaking up and fighting the good fight.

In real life, Gilford explained, both his parents were firmly committed to causes such as civil rights.

"Mickey's conflict about what he would actually do in the end is about the furthest I went to fictionalize for dramatic purposes," Joe Gilford said in a program feature by Syche Phillips. "In real life, there was never any doubt as to my father's intentions."

But Mickey's fears and doubts work beautifully in this play, such as when he is heartbroken when a blacklisted friend dies, and for what he does when he is finally dragged before HUAC.

Most of the eight actors in this production are very well known from San Francisco Bay Area stages. Richard Frederick, who does a great Lee J. Cobb impression, has been in a number of TheatreWorks shows, including "Emma." Gabriel Marin, who is very moving as actor and artist Fred Lang, was in "Superior Donuts" at TheatreWorks. Robert Sicular, who moves from celebrity sycophant to attack dog as Rep. Walter, has stood out on every major local stage.

Despite the script calling for a black character, there appear to be no African-American people in this show. Café Society was the first really integrated club in New York. Jack Gilford actually shared a dressing room there with Billie Holiday. He dated Lena Horne. To not have a black actor seems a shocking omission.

Cathleen Edwards nicely evokes the 1950s with her costume design. Steven B. Mannshardt does his usual excellent work with lighting design, no small achievement, with three main areas of the stage to light for different purposes. Sound designer Jake Rodriguez handily provides the sounds of unseen court reporters, TV soundtracks and ringing phone.

The one odd thing was a loud crackling sound and strange flashing lights. I had to hear and see that four times before I understood it was supposed to be photojournalists with old-fashioned flash bulbs. At first I thought a spotlight was shorting out.

Giovanna Sardelli, who directed the New York premiere of this play in 2013, also directed this production, the California premiere. In her notes for the program, she wrote, "In 2013, I felt pretty confident that America had recovered its sense of decency that history wouldn't repeat itself. In 2018, I'm frightened that I no longer feel that way. 'Finks' reminds us of what is at stake and how ordinary people must stand for decency. It provides us guidance for these uncertain times, when performers like Jack Gilford fought to do what they did best: keep us laughing."

Freelance writer John Orr can be emailed at johnorr@regardingarts.com.

What: "Finks."

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

When: Through July 1 (see online for complete performance schedule).

Cost: $40-$100 (discounts available).

Info: TheatreWorks.

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