These commie writers and actors want to hand the United States of America over to the Ruskies and the red Chinese. My God. What would our founding fathers think? I’ll tell you. Benjamin Franklin is rolling over in his grave. George Washington, if he were here, would run through Hollywood and chop off every anti-American head he could find.
So rages legendary Right Wing Hollywood gossip columnist Hedda Hopper in playwright Claude Solnik’s well-observed historical fantasia about the 1950’s anti-Communist Blacklist, The Unamerican. Besides a comically accurate Hopper, Mr. Solnick offers rich portraits of Marilyn Monroe, Arthur Miller and Elia Kazan. The romance of Miller and Monroe and the clash between those male friends and colleagues over their disagreements of how to deal with testifying before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) are perceptively rendered by Solnick’s erudite research and keen writing. A highlight is the background of The Crucible, with Monroe reciting a speech from it. When The Unamerican focuses on the interplay between its four main characters it soars.
Solnick’s dramatic construction is problematic. Running two hours and 40 minutes with an intermission, The Unamerican is drawn out with an abundance of sometimes repetitious factual data, pulling focus from the human conflicts. Despite this and some narrative tangents, there is much to appreciate in The Unamerican, particularly its performances.
Wearing a blonde wig, employing a hint of that familiar breathiness while demonstrating emotional range, the luminous Victorious Konig is a sensational Marilyn Monroe. Ms. Konig is breathtaking delivering a long tender monologue describing the death of Monroe’s dog that’s laced with poignant observations about her life. Cole Porter’s “Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye” is given a rousing Monroe-style rendition by Konig.
Clad in costume designer Wendy Tonken’s selection of flashy dresses and flamboyant hats, the lean and animated Paige Susan Anderson nearly steals the show as the famous Hedda Hopper. Ms. Anderson veers from hilarious to chilling with her mighty characterization, and one wishes she had more to do.
Andrew Ryan Perry thoroughly captures Arthur Miller’s passion, intellectualism and idealism with his expressive voice and appealing presence. Elia Kazan’s renowned combativeness, steeliness and complexity are authentically channeled by the magnetic Albert Insinnia. Michael Donato’s HUAC Chairman is suitably malevolent, and he makes the most of a vicious confrontation with Miller. Appearing via video projection, Tony Del Bono as The Producer is ominous spouting archconservative talking points.
While attaining alchemical results with his cast, director Joe John Battista achieves magic on the stage with his theatrical physical staging. Saxophonist John Tan appears live in silhouette behind a screen playing standards of the era, adding a film noir touch. A recording of Handel’s Sarabande is heard during important silent moments.
Though the Congressional staircase and podium scenic design is impressive, it takes up about a third of the playing area. Mr. Battista compensates for the reduced space by having much of the action enacted on the other side with precision, plentiful movement and flair. At times, Kazan functions as a stage manager standing opposite the rest of the cast on the other side of the stage for more visual variance. The stage being enveloped by wafting smoke for a pivotal sequence is a cool touch. Lighting designer Marsh Shugart creates a vintage dimension through a variety of deft muted hues.
This world premiere production of The Unamerican reveals that its core is solid, and its premise has potential.
The Unamerican (through March 13, 2022)
Theater for the New City, 155 First Avenue, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-254-1109 or visit http://www.theaterforthenewcity.net
Running time: two hours and 40 minutes with one intermission