Peggy Sue Dunigan

Next Act’s The Value of Names

By - Apr 4th, 2010 03:11 pm
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What’s your name?

Two or three words can signify identity, a career, culture, gender, heritage or marital status. Friday night, Next Act Theatre opened Jeffrey Sweet’s The Value of Names, which effectively shows how names can take on these layers of meaning.

Kelsey Brennan, as Norma Silverman, John Kishline as Leo Greshen, and Robert Spencer as Benny Silverman, in the Next Åct Theatre production of Jeffrey Sweet’s The Value of Names. Photo courtesy of Next Act Theatre website.

The triangle in Sweet’s story, set in 1981, forms among Benny Silverman (Robert Spencer), his daughter Norma Silverman (Kelsey Brennan), and Benny’s old friend Leo Greshen (John Kishline). The characters all work in film, television, or theater. The two men originally met in an actors’ political group in the early ‘50’s. Norma is appearing in a play under a stage name. By coincidence, Greshan will be directing her, to Benny’s great displeasure.

The play appears to be about reconciliation of these three characters, but a great deal more is going on. Women’s names give them multiple identities. A daughter takes her father’s name at birth, but what if your father is a famous actor? Are you hired for yourself or because of his name? When a woman marries, does she change her name to reflect another man’s? If your parents divorce, as Norma’s have, who are you? To complicate things further, Norma’s mother has returned to her maiden name, which Norma chooses for her own stage name — much to Benny’s distress.

Names acquire new meanings as Greshen defies a 30-year estrangement to meet with Benny and Norma at Silverman’s oceanside patio in Malibu. Greshen’s  “good name” rose from his career, his work in films and his numerous awards.  It is also bound up with names he revealed to the Communist-hunting House Un-American Activities Committee in 1952. One of those names was Benny Silverman. Silverman was blacklisted and didn’t work for a decade, while Greshen’s career soared. That’s where things stand when Greshen arrives to persuade Norma to stay with the show despite what her father thinks about Greshen, Norma’s stage name, or the show.

Spencer’s Benny Silverman engages the audience with his wit and crusty stubbornness; this character defines the action and emotional tenor of the play. He balances Brennan’s feisty Norma, who admonishes her father. Kishline posits a relaxed sincerity in Greshen. He “simply tried to survive” a horrific period in American history. (Sweet based his script on director Ella Kazan’s conflict with actor Zero Mostel, which stemmed from Kazan’s testimony before the HUAC in 1952.)

Director David Cecsarini unravels these deft plot lines and turns in slow pacing aimed toward a culminating, dynamic stroke in the second act. The play’s subtext to the father-daughter relationship resounds in the final scene on one word ⎯ a name. Next Act and Sweet weave an entertaining and thought-provoking production, with more questions than answers in two challenging hours.

The Value to Names runs through May 2 at the Off-Broadway Theatre, 342 N. Water St. For tickets: 414-278-0765. Further info here.

Categories: Theater

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