Deeply layered perfs from Jack Klugman and Dan Lauria, re-creating their roles from a George Street Playhouse production in New Brunswick, N.J., highlight an overly talky yet compelling confrontation in Jeffrey Sweet’s “The Value of Names.” Klugman and Lauria play former friends who, after 40 years, still bear the wounds inflicted by the investigations of the House Un-American Activities Committee in the 1950s. Lauria slips comfortably into the persona of unrepentant “stoolie” Leo Gershen going mano a mano with unforgiving Benny Silverman (Klugman), the actor whose career was ruined when Gershen gave up his name to the HUAC.
Set entirely on the veranda of Silverman’s high-end hillside Malibu digs, “The Value of Names” pits two well-prepared combatants who have had a lot of time to think about what they would say if they were ever to meet again.
The encounter was inadvertently set up by Silverman’s actress daughter Norma (Liz Larsen), who is being directed by Gershen in a stage play and is seriously thinking of changing her name to come out from under the shadow of her father’s legendary persona. A stone-faced Benny responds, “He steals my name; you throw it away.”
Sweet is so intent on rooting through every crevice of the Leo/Benny conundrum, he overstates his premise. It is quickly established that as youths, career-driven Leo believed he had no choice but to testify to save his ability to work, whereas the socially idealistic Benny did not, suffering a 20-year blacklisting.
Despite reams of justifications, recriminations, self-righteous defiance and a mutual recognition that they are near the end of their lives, it is redundantly clear that Leo is pleading not for forgiveness but for his old friend to “put it aside.” It is just as evident that morally rigid Benny cannot and will not. What is missing is the scripter’s take on these proceedings. Sweet is objective to a fault.
Living up to Benny’s rep as a gifted comic actor, Klugman exudes exquisite comic timing as he shields himself from Leo and Norma with well-honed jibes, all the while giving tangible evidence of his lingering pain and unending resentment.
Lauria’s Leo is a growling pit bull of a survivor, pugnaciously flailing at a society that still condemns this one act from his youth, despite his subsequent successes as a film and stage director.
Norma, a third wheel of a character, offers little insight or function to the main thrust of the thematic throughline and employs the annoying devise of talking directly to the audience, usually to complain about her father. Still, Larsen delivers an earnest performance.
Complementing the proceedings is Keith Mitchell’s transcendently posh veranda setting (the spoils from Benny’s eventual rebirth as a successful sitcom actor), which stands as tangible contrast to the mantle of victim that Benny so painstakingly promulgates.