The epistolary pleasures of “Trumbo,” a modest but moving tribute to blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, lead one to bemoan the loss of the letter as an art form. In our current age, when even abbreviated emails have given way to a word or a smiley face on an instant message, Trumbo’s lengthy, passionate letters, compiled by his son, Christopher, and delivered with a sense of self-conscious awe by Joe Mantegna, remind us of a time when correspondence could contain multitudes.
Of course, before waxing nostalgic for the days when letters seemed to matter, one must note that this work bemoans Trumbo’s own era, too, and with plenty of rue. The exceptionally well-chosen missives capture the personal impact of the motion picture industry’s blacklisting of Trumbo after he refused to “cooperate” with the House Un-American Activities Committee.
Some of the letters are angry, others bitingly funny, many both. Still others are simple and sweet,such as the rhyme he sends Christopher from jail for the boy’s 10th birthday. All of them are impossibly clever, and each letter tops the previous one for the startling quality of the prose.
A narrator (Jeffrey Donovan) fills in for Christopher and provides the personal context for the messages Mantegna reads from behind a desk. Dalton was a family man, and director Peter Askin locates the core sentiment of this show in the father-son relationship, climaxing with a massive missive on the subject of sex.
As we can tell from the projected images, Mantegna doesn’t look at all like Trumbo, but this isn’t that kind of mimetic performance. Nathan Lane, who originated the role in New York, didn’t look anything like him, either, nor did Bill Irwin or Paul Newman, among those who have assayed the part since.
Mantegna clearly appreciates and communicates the passion, the wit and the rascally personality underlying the letters. He often glances up at the audience with a small smile, acknowledging that he’s merely a vessel here celebrating this epistolary genius.
While he’s probably not the best fit for this role — his edginess seems quite different from Trumbo’s — he’s particularly good at the put-upon Trumbo, the man who suffers yet remains resilient.
Different actors probably bring different letters to the forefront; Mantegna’s perf is most alive in a letter in which Trumbo responds to the suggestion of an ally that the blacklisted writers should now name names. This patriotic letter alone earns the play its subtitle: “Red, White and Blacklisted.”
Sweet, sad and ultimately uplifting, “Trumbo” is one of those small pieces of theater that will be performed periodically for years to come, both as a great history lesson and as a reminder that, many years ago, people wrote letters, and, on occasion, the craft of those letters ascended to art.