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The epistolary bio has got to be a chore for an actor: Few of us talk the way we write in our letters, after all. And nobody ever talked the way Dalton Trumbo wrote—swaggeringly, ferociously, intelligently, cuttingly, with a kind of loopy charm that helped take the sting out of an arrogant, sometimes bullying style.
So imagine the hurdles for Nigel Reed, playing the blacklisted Hollywood screenwriter in this affectionate portrait conceived and written by Trumbo’s son, Christopher. (Sound vaguely familiar? No surprise: The play had an off-Broadway run a few years back, and Christopher Trumbo has turned much the same material into a documentary film recently.)
Trumbo cut a hell of a figure, though, whether writing acid notes to the phone company or giving as good as he took from the pissants at the House Un-American Activities Committee. And with able assists from director Steven Carpenter and actor Jonathan Watkins (as Christopher, whose wry, fond memories create a sort of narrative connective tissue between letters), Reed delivers both a highly entertaining portrait of a consummate character, not to mention a bracing reminder of the collective American shame of the McCarthy era. Sure, it’s a hike to Rep Stage, but this one’s worth the trip—and if the highly stylized arcana of 1984 aren’t to your taste, the warm, naturalistic style of Carpenter’s staging ought to go down easy.