With “Jolson Sings Again,” Arthur Laurents shows how politics and principles can undermine good friendships. He also shows, however inadvertently, that politics and principles can undermine good play-writing. Touted as a future Broadway entry, the script will require considerable work before any such move makes sense.
The drama sets four characters down in the midst of the communist witch hunts in Hollywood in the 1950s, and watches as politics slowly poisons their lives. Julian (Evan Handler), a successful New York playwright, has just arrived on the West Coast to write his first screenplay. His director and friend Andreas (Dennis Boutsikaris) introduces him to agent Robbie (Laura Esterman) and her husband, Sydney (Daniel Oreskes), who soon become his family away from home.
Over the next five years, all but Julian are subpoenaed to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee. One refuses and is blacklisted; another names names and regrets it; the third names names and forgets it. Each one’s decision drives a wedge between formerly fast friends.
Sounds dramatic, but it falls short. The trouble can be summed up by one exchange between Andreas and Julian, in which the director insists that “people are more important than principles,” andJulian counters that “people are their principles.” Here, Julian’s statement is all too true.
Because of the schematic nature of the scenario, the actors play position papers rather than fully formed characters, and their conversations (which unfold almost exclusively between two people of opposing viewpoints) begin to sound like scripted debates: Testifying vs. taking the Fifth; holding fast to principles at all costs vs. compromising to save one’s family. Only a very few scenes (including one in which Julian finally rejects Andreas’ friendship) pack a real emotional punch.
Laurents has shown in previous works — notably “Home of the Brave,””West Side Story” and “The Way We Were”– that setting characters against a backdrop of social or political turmoil can heighten a story’s emotional impact. But in “Jolson Sings Again,” it has the opposite effect. References to real-life dramas such as the public testimony of Elia Kazan and Larry Parks (the actor whose screen portrayal of Al Jolson and subsequent “singing” to the authorities gives the play its name), and the blacklisting of Clifford Odets are almost too compelling. They dwarf the tenuous alliances and offhand betrayals of these four fictional characters.
Laurents’ case was not helped by Esterman, miscast in the critical role of Robbie. Torn by her loyalty to her husband, her physical desire for Andreas, her strong progressive principles and her need to support her family financially, Robbie should be one of the most vigorous, passionate and conflicted characters in the play. Instead, Esterman plays her as too nervous and enervated to become what should be a magnet for the audience’s sympathy.
Seattle Rep artistic director Daniel Sullivan draws more inspired performances from Handler and Boutsikaris, and a fine turn from Oreskes in a supporting role. And designers David Mitchell and Thomas Gregg Meyer have given him a beautifully functional and detailed set.
But this play needs more than pretty interiors to make it truly sing. With a new kind of witch hunt in the arts back in fashion, one hopes that “Jolson Sings Again” can be revised to spread its message andtouch some hearts. Lacking passion, it’s just pedantry.