Playreading’s Not for Me, Trumbo Exception to Rule

A playreading never really does it for me. The curtain goes up and there they are-the desk, the glass of water, the script and Rhea Perlman. Not that I’ve anything against Ms. Perlman.

The trend of playreading is neither fish nor foul-not quite play, not quite reading. It’s a new force in theater: live radio with guest celebs. The Exonerated is a well-meaning example of the genre: a rotating cast of performers read oral accounts of prisoners on death row. The current cast is Keir Dullea, Fisher Stevens and Marlo Thomas, and the upcoming cast will include Josh Brolin, Rhea Perlman and Peter Weller. All good people, for sure, but there’s the inescapable impression that a worthy cause has been turned into Celebrity Squares .

I’m not in favor of “guest artists” popping into a show that’s read. I like actors to be wholly committed to a show that’s performed. The “guest artist” gives the impression he’s “between engagements.” But great actors get to “own” roles. They make them their own to such a mesmerizing extent that years later, even a lifetime later, the role mythically “belongs” to them. “Guest artists” don’t make history.

Nor do readings. Unless you count The Vagina Monologues. More or less everyone has been in The Vagina Monologues at one time or another. The former Mrs. Rudolph Giuliani was in it. You could have been in it, if you had played your cards right. The Vagina Monologues was a lucky show. People all over the world found the oral testimony of women talking about their vaginas a thrilling theatrical experience. But for me, the curtain went up and there they were-the stool, the music stand, the script, the glass of water and Rhea Perlman.

Not that I’ve anything against Ms. Perlman. I’m not even sure she was in The Vagina Monologues . Perhaps it was Marlo Thomas. It makes no difference who was in it, provided it was a celeb. A.R. Gurney’s Love Letters for two actors began the low-budget playreading game in earnest. Find two celebs-preferably a real, live showbiz couple-plus two desks, two chairs and two bundles of faded love letters, and away we go! But where’s the show? Where’s the unshackled, spontaneous production ?

The deluxe version of a playreading was Al Pacino in Oscar Wilde’s Salome on Broadway last season. The famous play was retitled Salome: The Reading for the occasion. Now, you might think that the decadent, biblical excesses of Salome would be a perfect opportunity for a full-scale, wonderfully nuts staging. And there you would be wrong. The concert version with its music stands and bound scripts and solemn ensemble in black had the reverse chic of a serious work in progress .

Mr. Pacino didn’t need the script on the stand by his side. He first played his zapped-out Herod with the Yiddishkeit inflections a decade ago and knew the play backward. Even so, he turned over the pages of his script on cue-as if it were a real reading. The lovelier-than-ever Marisa Tomei as the uninhibited slut Salome sort of touched herself up on a stool in a diverting departure from the script. Everyone else in the cast seemed word-perfect, too. So here we had a historic first: Al Pacino and a distinguished cast that also included Dianne Wiest and David Strathairn pretending it was a playreading for the sake of appearances.

Anyone can read onstage. Not every actor reads well. Some cling unnervingly to the book like Leo Bloom to his blankie in The Producers . Which brings me coincidentally to Nathan Lane. Mr. Lane has just left Trumbo , an inspired reading at the Westside Theatre of the blacklisted Dalton Trumbo’s terrific letters and testaments to honor from the McCarthy era. F. Murray Abraham has taken over the role, and for three weeks from Oct. 21 it will be Brian Dennehy. After Mr. Dennehy, qui?

It can’t be Rhea Perlman. Not that I’ve anything against Ms. Perlman. Trumbo is for two male actors who play Dalton and his son, the narrator (still portrayed by the excellent, wry Gordon McDonald). Mr. Lane was a first-rate reader-bouncing off the text, giving Trumbo ‘ s burning indignation the velocity it requires. But he’s a great performer rather than a great actor. Give Mr. Lane a showstopping piece like Trumbo’s hilarious letter of advice to his son at college extolling the joys of masturbation, and the star will take no prisoners. Outrageous riffs and broad emotions are Mr. Lane’s calling card, caricature his specialty. But Trumbo was a complex, not necessarily lovable man, his intelligence diamond-sharp. Nathan Lane was mostly on muted best behavior in the show, as if trying his darndest to be good , stuck behind a desk like a bloodhound on a leash.

Mr. Abraham and Mr. Dennehy at their best-and Trumbo demands nothing less from anyone presuming to fill his shoes-should find the more nuanced notes and make this important show even better. Playreading or no, to be in the same room as Dalton Trumbo’s principled heart and mind is an extraordinary gift. The screenwriter of such epics as Spartacus , Exodus and Papillon was, of course, one of the Hollywood 10 branded a Communist sympathizer and blacklisted to a slow starvation by the 1950’s McCarthyite witch hunts.

The story of how he survived persecution in scoundrel time and ultimately managed to survive and even triumph-without naming names, without easy capitulation and betrayal, without draping himself in the false colors of patriotism and the flag-is one of the great, enduring stories for our time. The letters, bursting at the seams with the furious intoxication of words and moral choice (and not a little wit and good humor), could have been written by G.B. Shaw. The Trumbo who “stood silent in the chamber of liars” and lost everything as an uncooperative witness in the cause of liberty and conscience is the true patriot and one of the saints.

“I’ve stood on a gray day in the Fifth Marine Division Cemetery on Iwo Jima, and looked off at the graves of 2,198 Americans,” goes one of the letters that makes the blood boil. “In the center of all those graves on a slim white pole on a concrete pedestal flew the American flag. And I swear it was not the flag of informers. And if I could take a census of all the American faces I have seen and of all the dead whose graves I have looked on-if I could ask them one simple question: ‘Would you like a man who told on his friend?’-there would not be one among them who would answer, ‘Yes.’

“But, show me the man who informs on friends who have harmed no one, and who thereafter earns money he could not have earned before, and I will show you not a decent citizen, not a patriot, but a miserable scoundrel who will, if new pressures arise and the price is right, betray not just his friends but his country itself. I do not know of one Hollywood informer who acted except under duress and for money; such men are to be watched. I cannot imagine they are not watched …. “

Trumbo is written and compiled by Dalton’s son, Christopher Trumbo, and directed by Peter Askin. With all my reservations about “readings,” it’s a pleasure to make the acquaintance of Dalton Trumbo in a show that must be heard.

Playreading’s Not for Me, Trumbo Exception to Rule