There’s a certain synchronicity about Paul Newman taking on the role of blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo in this popular bio-show vehicle which began off-Broadway and is now making its way into the provinces. After all, Newman starred in 1960’s “Exodus,” which marked the return of the scribe’s name to the screen after 13 years in Hollywood exile during one of the most shameful times in film — and American — history.
Though Newman never really knew the writer personally — the star filmed “Exodus” in Israel while Trumbo remained in California — there is a certain connectiveness between the two personas in the sense of cinematic history, of survival and longevity, and of a kind of symbiotic character that speaks of independence, feistiness and democratic virtue. Newman brings to the role a kind of an unspoken parallel spirit. The rebel roles and different-drummer choices that has marked Newman’s career and life have a decidedly Trumbo-esque echo.
Innately, Newman speaks to “Trumbo” in a way that other more skilled stage performers such as Nathan Lane, who originated the role last fall, or any other of the many “name” successors simply don’t have.
Newman was there during the Hollywood blacklist when hundreds lost their jobs and even their lives in a different — but in many ways similar to today — era of rabble-rousing fear among the citizenry: the Red Scare of the early Cold War. “I missed it by a bullet,” Newman reveals in an after-talk with the audience.
This limited run is to benefit the Westport Country Playhouse whose artistic director is Newman’s own wife, Joanne Woodward. But unlike the demanding role of the Stage Manager in “Our Town,” which marked his return to the stage after more than 35 years (first for a summer stint in Connecticut and later on Broadway), this engagement is a sit-down experience. With the graceful help of a versatile Gordon MacDonald who plays the narrator, Trumbo’s son and assorted other roles, Newman simply reads and embodies the essence of the writer in testimony, speeches and correspondences. And what writing! One feels that today’s communicative quicklife is bankrupt compared to the style of glorious writing that flowed from Trumbo’s pen — or more accurately the typewriter, which he worked on from his bathtub.
Newman isn’t after a characterization of the writer and indeed there’s very little sense that he “is” Trumbo. Clearly, he “is” Paul Newman, his familiar crusty voice, his casual body language, his eyes lighting up when he catches the sense of the scamp in the writing (which is often). Newman is at his most frisky when he reads Trumbo’s letter to his college-age son singing the praises of physical self-gratification, referring to the father’s own skills as “a penile virtuoso, a gonadic prodigy, a spermatiferous thunderbolt, a masturbator’s masturbator.”) Another comic gem is a letter to a house contractor that has the salutation, “Dear Burglars…” Trumbo is a man who savors words like a gourmand while hurling them as a noble warrior.
In “Trumbo” the most compelling words, however, are those when you least expect them: in a letter to the mother of a “front” (a writer who put his name on a script in order to sell it for Trumbo) who has suddenly died, or in a correspondence to an elementary school principal for failing in her duties to protect his daughter from right-wing bullies. His most devastating words are not against his political enemies but to those who feel uninvolved in the writer’s persecution. When an “affectionate friend” sends him a check but has previously been a coward professionally, Trumbo reduces him to worm-like status: “There can be no real political differences between you and me because you have no politics but expediency, no standard of conduct but deceit, no principle but self-love… Give me no more affection; I stagger beneath that already conferred.”
Certainly in this short summer sprint, Newman’s work isn’t as polished as others who have taken on the role — his energies sometimes flag, speeches don’t build quite so skillfully and often the reader stumbles — but the actor brings a sense of elder authority that forgives such lapses. Trumbo died in 1976 at the age of 71. Newman, who is 79 and looks well under that number, gives the sense of Trumbo at the end of his life looking back and re-reading the correspondence. There is a subtle sense that he already knows what is going to happen, the devastation of his career and the burdens his family will face. So the reading of the letters exist in the dimension of a cynical sage taking a deep breath from his life and then peacefully exhaling, giving his listeners an extraordinary sense of the atmosphere in which he lived.