Given the feckless state of current congressional committees, a look back into the actual witch hunt of the House Un-American Affairs Committee teased a richly dramatic story-telling opportunity. Among its many dubious accomplishments, HUAC spawned the infamous Hollywood blacklist that destroyed or severely damaged the careers of many gifted writers and filmmakers starting in the late 1940s.
It is therefore disappointing to report that “Finks” by Joe Gilford, onstage in its California premiere presented by TheatreWorks Silicon Valley, is a pleasant but largely tepid experience that suffers from conflicting priorities.
It ping-pongs between a love story and a courtroom drama and neither story really gets to take center stage. It’s “The Way We Were” meets “A Few Good Men” but sans the emotional release or righteous in-your-face Aaron Sorkin delivery. Either is a great plot, together they are mutually diluting, and while the showbiz flourishes plus a sidebar about a closeted gay performer embellish the former, they create the wrong kind of dissonance placed against the latter.
This is a true story, or many true stories, intertwined and with names changed to protect dramatic license. The leads are based on the author’s parents, actors Madeline Lee and two-time Tony-nominee Jack Gilford (“Cabaret”). Other doppelgangers include choreographer Jerome Robbins and actors Zero Mostel, Lionel Stander and Philip Loeb.
The issue here is not the talented cast, a fine blend of Broadway visitors and Bay Area artists.
Donna Vivino is earnestly annoying (in the best way) as the passionate labor organizer on a Quixotic mission against the government power brokers. Leo Ash Evens charms as her buddy-husband, balancing career preservation and sexual identity conflicts. Their marriage of convenience is divided by Jim Stanek as a nightclub comic drawn to Vivino’s energy and free spirit but challenged by her increasingly inconvenient politics.
Rounding out their character triangle, Gabriel Marin is a strong presence as the friend who chooses loyalty over self-preservation at the hearings and pays the predictable price.
Pompous and preening, Robert Sicular richly embodies the historically specific Congressman Francis Walter, chair of the committee, who fawns over and then berates celebrities in the witness chair to “answer the question.”
Completing the cast and showing off wonderfully varied styles, Michael Barrett Austin, Richard Frederick and George Psarras play a cascade of supporting characters, with Austin making a particularly memorable impression as an oily political operative.
Giovanna Sardelli gracefully directs her talented team through Andrea Bechert’s terrifically intersectional set. (Kudos also to the excellent costume work of Cathleen Edwards.) The failure of so many strong elements to ignite was frustrating and rests with the playwright. If, as rumored, “Finks” is being developed as a miniseries, Gilford may have another crack at this interesting and obviously very personal topic.
Presented by TheatreWorks Silicon Valley
Where: Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St., Mountain View
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays-Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays; closes July 1
Tickets: $40 to $100
Contact: (650) 463-1960, www.theatreworks.org