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Holy HUAC: Goodbye, Louie...Hello!

hello louie goodbye

Alan Freeman and Steve Franken

Holy HUAC! A well-intentioned, if schmaltzy, look at Hollywood’s Blacklist by a king of the sitcoms.

The best thing about Goodbye, Louie… Hello! is its progressive politics, which makes this dramedy part of contemporary theatre’s strong, ongoing left-leaning trend. Written by sitcom veteran Allan Manings, who suffered the slings and arrows of the Hollywood Blacklist’s outrageous misfortunes, Louie deals with the House Un-American Activities Committee anti-Communist purge hearings.

There have been numerous works regarding the Blacklist, but Louie takes a look at this whole sordid, wretched affair from a fresh angle. The play reveals the price people paid by collaborating with HUAC. It’s well known that Tinseltown talents who refused to betray themselves, their ideals and others lost their jobs in the entertainment industry. But while those who became informers may have been able to continue working in a glamorous, high paying field, they had to live with the fact that they’d committed treachery and sold others out in order to save their own skins. Louie candidly shows how politicians could batter and coerce one into squealing on friends, etc., then how that traitor has to go through life with a repressed trauma, a sort of post-traumatic stress disorder, along with a heavy dose of self-loathing.

hello louie goodbye

Alan Freeman, Maria Kress, Paul Denniston

However, this does not mean that the play lets the stool pigeon off the hook, absolving him of his sins, as Nick Kazan’s recent romp, Mlle. God, did. What a shock – the son of Hollywood’s “quintessential informer,” Elia Kazan, forgives a brother for selling his sister down the river for personal gain in that play. However, unlike God, Goodbye, Louie… Hello! was written not by a beneficiary of informing but from the point of view of one who was victimized by it. And this perspective makes all the difference, even though Manings – unlike many of his blacklisted creative community comrades – was able to resume his career as a successful TV producer and writer.

Manings won an Emmy for Laugh-In and was reportedly the countercultural sketch show’s “head writer” and “liberal conscience.” He also worked on the 1970s series Good Times (about a Black family of strivers in the projects) and the proto-feminist One Day at a Time (which he co-created with actress wife Whitney Blake of Hazel fame) for that clown prince of sitcom liberalism, Norman Lear. Manings’ writing credits include Leave It to Beaver, McHale’s Navy and Petticoat Junction, and the sitcom influence shows in Louie. In addition, the Newark-born Manings grew up in New York City, and Louie’s schmaltzy East Coast shtick is thicker than a pastrami club sandwich at the Stage Deli.

Indeed, Steve Franken who plays Benjy Gordon, co-starred in the vintage sitcom The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, which went on the air (with future state legislator Sheila Kuehl as zany Zelda) in 1959. Benjy was the straight man and sidekick to his far more successful longtime friend, Louie Berns, star of a television show. After brief clips (apparently shot for this stage show) portraying the duo performing back in the day, the play opens with Benjy and Louie now in their so-called golden years. While they’re no longer comedy partners, the widowers regularly play cards and kibitz together. Benjy still slings one-liners, which are generally as corny as much of the dialogue of this sitcom-y play is, with its frequent, predictable references to pastrami and other deli delicacies.

Roy Vongtama, Alan Freeman.

Roy Vongtama, Alan Freeman.

Louie wants to move to that Mecca of East Coast seniors, the promised land of Arizona, where wandering Jews mingle with Wild West gunslingers. The impending relocation upsets his loving daughter Aimee (Maria Kress, who had a recurring role on the Days of Our Lives soap opera). Louie has a troubled relationship with his wannabe actor son Scott (Paul Denniston), whom dad wanted, rather tellingly, to become an attorney. The strained father-son relations strives to be similar to the angst-ridden clash between Raymond Massey and James Dean in 1955’s Elia Kazan-directed East of Eden, but Denniston’s one note Scott lacks the emotional intensity to ignite his character and his conflict with Louie with the necessary fire.

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Then again, Manings was no John Steinbeck. However, his writing does rise above the punch line level of mundane sitcom dialogue with a recurring problem one of the characters has: Remembering names. This is a clever reference to “naming names” in this Blacklist-themed work. Having said that, Louie does not provide enough exposition and explication to make audiences understand why the treachery of HUAC informers could cause so much pain, shame and horror. After all, the HUAC inquisition began almost two thirds of a century ago (back in 1947 with the Hollywood Ten) and for many theatergoers the Blacklist is ancient history; many have a passing (if any) acquaintanceship with this truly bleak period in American arts. A few well-placed vintage film clips accompanying the sound effects heard onstage would help provide historical context.

Another historical point: The production’s playbill cover, etc., features a picture of Sen. Joe McCarthy. Although the fascistic junior senator from Wisconsin lent his name and image to what we now call “McCarthyism,” McCarthy himself was not directly involved in the HUAC hearings, which were conducted by a committee of the House of the Representatives – not of the Senate. The anti-Communist auto-da-fes of the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, that McCarthy chaired, mostly involved government officials and employees, the Army, etc., although he actually did call a few artists, such as Spartacus author Howard Fast, to testify.

Alan Freeman, Steve Franken.

Alan Freeman, Steve Franken.

Although I’m glad that Manings, who died a year before his play premiered, tried to remind contemporary audiences about those anti-Communist witch trials. Theatre West is an ideal place to debut this play; co-founder Betty Garrett and her husband Larry Parks were among those whose movie careers were ruined by the Blacklist. Indeed, March 21 was the precise 60th anniversary of Parks being the first actor to take HUAC’s witness stand when the Hollywood Blacklist returned with a vengeance. Betty died shortly before this anniversary and a memorial service was held to celebrate her life on April 6 at the Mark Taper Forum, where Oscar winner Jeff Bridges was among those who eulogized her.

The name of Franken’s character, Benjy Gordon, is very similar to that of a real life hero of the Blacklist, Bernie Gordon, who escaped the purges and went on to become a successful writer/producer in exile at Europe. Bernie, who was a friend of mine, never forget or forgave the HUAC informers, and he initiated the protests against Kazan’s lifetime achievement Oscar, which culminated with many talents remaining in their seats and not applauding when Kazan accepted his golden statuette during 1999’s Academy Awards ceremony.

With his understated performance and droll delivery of jokes, Franken turns in the best performance by the cast, which was directed by John Gallogly. The latter co-produced with Jerry Goldstein, an agent who’d represented Manings. Set designer Jeff Rack’s Central Park West apartment, where the onstage action takes place, is skillfully, realistically rendered.

ed rampell

Goodbye, Louie… Hello! is being performed on Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 p.m. and Sundays at 2:00 p.m. through May 8 at Theatre West, 333 Cahuenga Blvd. West, L.A., CA 90068. For more info: (323)851-7977; www.theatrewest.org.

Ed Rampell

8 April 2011