Originally published on Talkin’ Broadway.
A young actress wants to change her name to free herself from the burden of being the daughter of a “name” actor. Her father flips out, first because as someone “named” before the House Un-American Affairs Committee, naming carries heavy symbolism for him, and later because the very friend who named him as a communist sympathizer in the fifties takes over the direction of his daughter’s play. Jeffrey Sweet’s The Value of Names, now playing at the Theatre Cooperative in Somerville, has a very simple premise, but a simple presence is all it takes to launch a play of ideas as provocative today as it must have been at its premiere over two decades ago.
The production is minimal. We’re greeted by a realistic set (designed by Gino Ng), a note-perfect rendering of a Malibu patio, circa 1981. The audience is seated on two sides, and the sound of the ocean helps set the scene. When the play begins, Tracy Campbell’s costumes immediately remind us that we’re now in 1981 without being campy, and before we have time to think, we’re launched into an argument between Norma, the actress/daughter played by Nelleke Morse, and her father Benny, brought to life by Harold Withee. As soon as we’re launched into the argument, Norma turns to the audience and addresses us directly, and we immediately become aware of this production’s main liabilities. No, it’s not the questionable technique of breaking the fourth wall – Sweet has kept this to a minimum and uses it wisely. The real problem is that Nelleke Morse’s portrayal of Norma is so flat, it is hard to recognize when she is speaking to the audience and when she is speaking to her father, a problem made worse by the utter lack of lighting cues or any other directorial flourishes. Morse’s poor characterization becomes even more ironic when her new director, Leo (Fred Robbins), shows up to convince her to stay with the production. If Norma’s acting is anywhere near the level of Nelleke Morse’s, Leo should jump at the opportunity to recast his play.
Luckily, Norma leaves the stage for the better part of the evening, allowing Benny and Leo to butt heads and hash out their decades-long grievance. It’s clear from their interaction why these two were friends in their youth, and both actors allow us glimpses into their mutual affection even as Leo defends himself from Benny’s rage. Withee endows Benny with all the charm, and the tics, of a grandfather figure who’s been through enough to have earned the right of irascibility while still being likeable. Robbins’ portrayal of Leo is more stately and restrained, drawing his very physicality from the attitude he took towards the HAUC hearings. When these two finally get to the heart of their dispute, the patio becomes like a boxing ring for the prize fight of morality, but neither Sweet nor director Lesley Chapman is willing to declare a winner. Eventually, the characters make their decisions and go on with their lives, but the play leaves the questions of right and wrong, hurt and healing, lingering for the audience to debate long after the final bow.
The Value of Names at the Theatre Cooperative, 277 Broadway in Somerville, now through December 11th. Performances are Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 PM, with 3:00 PM Sunday matinees on November 21st and December 5th. Tickets are $20 general admission, $15 for students and seniors. “Pay What You Can” performances on November 21st and December 5th. No performances Thanksgiving Weekend. Post-show discussion with playwright Jeffrey Sweet on November 20th and 21st. For tickets or information, visit www.theatrecoop.org.
The Theatre Cooperative eighth season continues in January with The Ritalin Readings: A Festival of Ten Minute Plays, January 7-8, Friday & Saturday at 8 PM. The Coop continues its support of emerging New England playwrights in their sixth-annual ten-minute play festival.