The Value of Names,” Jeffrey Sweet’s brief discourse on the well-worn subject of the infamous Hollywood Communist witch-hunt, has nested at the George Street Playhouse. But the real value of names can be found in the person of Jack Klugman, who stars as an irascible retired comedian, adding his gruffly appealing bounce to some tiresome banter.
Attempting to cover a great deal of ground in 80 minutes, the three-character play casts Klugman as Benny Silverman, a weathered old TV comic who spends his retirement doing oil paintings of the California coast. Initial conflict finds his feisty actress daughter, Norma (Liz Larsen), in search of a stage moniker to avoid comparison to a famous dad who years earlier was blacklisted by the House Un-American Activities Commission for misplaced loyalties.
Norma offers asides to the audience that are meant to smooth over the rumpled family relationship, but they serve as little more than awkward interruptive interludes. It seems she has taken a part in a play to be directed by Benny’s old nemesis, Leo Gershen (Dan Lauria), a film and stage director who gave damaging testimony to HUAC to save his career, thereby putting a temporary halt to Benny’s blossoming stardom.
Leo arrives at the beach house and confronts Benny, causing the old grudges and grievances to surface. But over a beer, the time-worn wounds are healed up to a point. The terrible indignities suffered under the investigation seem remote, and Leo makes a plea to keep the rebellious Norma in his play.
“The Value of Names” obviously has legs: It’s been bouncing around the country for two decades. But it serves as little more than a good scrap between a couple of seasoned players. No one is more suited to play a peppery curmudgeon than Klugman, who brings considerable bite and bluster to the role of the old comic. In the wake of his larynx surgery, a few lines are muffled and lost, but his mere presence as a crusty octogenarian is most warming.
Lauria brings a bullish strength that provides serviceable balance.
The role of Norma is not fleshed out enough, but the attractive Larsen offers a keen challenge for Klugman’s crusty verbiage.
James Glossman’s fluent staging makes the verbal duel a palatable passage of time. A flowery sun-baked Malibu patio, designed by R. Michael Miller, provides a comfortable battleground.