“Jolson Sings Again” is neither a musical nor a bio of the celebrated vaudevillian and film star Al Jolson, but a provocative drama by vet playwright Arthur Laurents that focuses upon four fictional young artists whose lives were forever altered by the decade-long investigation of the entertainment industry by the House Committee on Un-American Activities.
Laurents has extensively revised the play since its 1995 premiere at the Seattle Repertory Theater. While never a party member, the prolific octogenarian dramatist was briefly blacklisted for his association with leftist causes. The play’s characters are composites of actors, directors and writers Laurents knew or worked with, and who were subsequently threatened or named.
The play casts an unsettling spell, not only in the wake of recent Washington witchhunts that preceded the impeachment trial, but also in light of the current controversy surrounding the presentation of an honorary Oscar to Elia Kazan. Kazan, Clifford Odets, Lee J. Cobb and John Garfield are among several real-life figures referred to in the play.
The play follows five years in the lives of a fictional foursome who become entangled in conflict as a result of the investigation. Julian (Robert Petkoff) is a Jewish, homosexual writer who arrives in Hollywood to write his first screenplay during a time when studio boss Darryl Zanuck is nervous about the startling disclosures being made at the hearings. The picture’s director, Andreas (Armand Schultz), advises Julian to change a pivotal character in his war-movie script from a Jew to a black. (Laurents was faced with the same compromise in real life when he adapted his play “Home of the Brave” for the screen.)
Andreas and Julian are also friends of bitter blacklisted scribe Sidney (played with a fine balance of rage and despair by Jonathan Hadary) and his supportive wife Ronnie (Betsy Aidem), formerly an influential literary agent, who is forced to take a secretarial position. Eventually all are subpoenaed, and Andreas, desperate to save his established career, betrays his friends.
Laurents’ play crackles with brittle, crisp dialogue. The playwright seems tempted to further explore the ambiguous sexual undercurrents among his characters, but the play is at its best in its eloquent defense of loyalty. The drama resonates as a bold reminder of a disturbing and dark chapter in Hollywood history. The actors give admirable and clearly defined performances, with Aidem flinty as the tough-edged but vulnerable wife.
Artistic director David Saint has brought invigorating new life to the New Brunswick stage. His vigorous and cohesive staging provides the quiet undercurrent of a gathering storm. The play has been mounted on a revolving platform that lends eavesdropping intimacy and defines varied locales with clarity. The slick and correct costumes by Theoni V. Aldredge are a distinct asset.