The personal and the political, blended, make for magnificent theater. Or, often as not, for excruciating theater. Or, sometimes, for shows like Los Big Names, in which Marga Gomez processes 90 minutes worth of family and career angst with an assist from the folks at Woolly Mammoth, brushing in the occasional written-for-Washington aside about protest politics or the odd wry observation on lesbian identity as expressed through hairstyle. It all adds up to neither magnificence nor mortification; Los Big Names has pretty modest ambitions, despite its title, and it succeeds pretty modestly, too.
Gomez seemed a little off at the top of last Sunday night’s opening, or maybe it was the audience. One way or the other, the early jokes, aside from a solid one-liner about the temperamental consequences of having been born half Cuban and half Puerto Rican, weren’t landing, and even Gomez’s second round of across-the-footlights “Hello everybody”s drew a tepid response from the seats.
But a little awkwardness is probably inevitable in the early performances of a world-premiere run, and in any case the warmth begins to gather quickly in Los Big Names—as soon as Gomez steps into the personas of her mama and papa, in fact. Comedian Willie Chevalier and dancer Margarita Viera, stars of the New York Latino-teatro scene of the ’60s, were shameless, irredeemable narcissists and less-than-ideal parents, at least according to Gomez’s affectionately acerbic portrait of them, and the richest passages in this one-woman show are the ones that highlight the scars and the strengths their daughter inherited from them. “My parents raised a professional,” Gomez says stoutly at one point, fusing the dubious pride of a stagestruck kid shooting her first Hollywood movie and the naked pain of a child unable to be at her mother’s deathbed—by which time we know enough about both the Chevalier-Viera divorce and the child caught in the middle of it to hear the hollow ring in that declaration.
Gomez’s ill-fated effort to cash in on the 1997 Latino explosion is the thread that stitches together her L.A. stories and her New York childhood; eternally driven by her parents’ example, she figured that in a culture with an appetite for mojitos, Ricky Martin, and talking Chihuahuas, “even Latina dykes have a shot.” Her Hollywood failures make for great comedy fodder, and when it’s not giving Gomez’s family baggage the airport-inspector treatment, Los Big Names delivers on the implicit promise of its title. Gomez serves up zesty little morsels of movieland dish that range from an unforgivingly funny impression of Kathleen Turner on a directorial tear to rueful reminiscences of days spent on the set of Barry Levinson’s notorious sci-fi stink bomb Sphere. The mockery is tight and bright, and with director David Schweizer, Gomez structures it smartly, cutting handily from professional train wrecks to personal calamities and back again.
As for the play’s overarching lesson, the conclusion that Gomez reaches at last in the back seat of a second-rate limo, on the way to the predictably underwhelming premiere of her destined-for-the-discount-bin movie, with her late parents’ voices echoing in her head? It’s better being yourself than being a star.
For the Jews who survived the slaughter of the 6 million—for the Jews who silently watched it happen and the Jews who inherited the grief of an age—the personal became political in ways no other population will ever fully understand. And for decades now, that duality has inspired reactions (some magnificent, some not) from all kinds of artists, the playwright and screenwriter Ben Hecht among them.
Ben Hecht? The guy who wrote The Front Page? The same, and in A Flag Is Born he created a piece of agitprop every bit as clean-limbed and effective as his farces: Staged on Broadway and taken on the road in the late ’40s, the show featured music by Kurt Weill and starred stage and screen legend Paul Muni, not to mention a fresh-faced unknown by the name of Marlon Brando; it was credited with helping to galvanize the U.S. public’s sympathy for the hundreds of thousands of Jews stranded in occupied Europe’s displaced-persons camps, with raising a boatload of money to transport them to Palestine, and with holding the British government’s feet to the fire on the question of whether to let them in.
Out of print and unproduced for 50-odd years, A Flag is Born is a perfect project for Jack Marshall and the American Century Theater, which makes a mission of digging up such notable but neglected artifacts, and sure-handed director Steven Scott Mazzola delivers a creditable production—the play’s Washington premiere, oddly enough.
What’s nicest about Mazzola’s staging is that it nails both the politics and the personal dimensions of a script that has, inevitably, taken on a dated air. We are at once more familiar with and more distanced from the horrors of the Holocaust, and the primer Hecht felt compelled to begin the play with—a lyrical, lamentational voice-over that argues for a new political psychology—seems a little strange, a little unnecessary, in these differently charged days. Mazzola understands this, and he responds by relocating the early action; he sets his production aboard a ship ferrying refugees to Palestine, imagining the assembled passengers as a kind of chorus of strangers giving voice to the terrible commonality that binds them. They break up the passages of the introduction among them, telling each other the stories of their suffering, and if some of the dark, weighty music of Hecht’s writing goes missing between the handoffs, the upside is in the way the device paints human faces into the grim portrait. (Later, a pair of silent staging and design gestures will punctuate the play’s conclusion starkly, expressively, in the same terms, conflating individual suffering with mass terror in a single breath-catching moment.)
From that efficient, intelligent opening, it’s just a storyteller’s leap back to the anonymous graveyard where Hecht originally set his story, to the characters of Tevye and Zelda (Joel Snyder and Annie Houston), the two ancients trudging their way toward a land they can barely imagine, and to the figure of David (Keith Warren), the bitter young camp survivor who comes to mock and to mourn with them. Hecht presents them as opposing types—the Jew of old Europe, despairing and powerless, a victim, vs. the grim-faced young militant who would succeed him, determined never again to be victimized—but there’s enough humanity in his sketches to let Mazzola’s principals make surprisingly real people out of them.
Snyder and Houston wear the sad dignity of suffering borne stubbornly, of faith and hope carried in hands that have lost their grip on just about everything else; Hecht gives them lines that—painful irony!—speak of God’s abundant promises to the Hebrew people, the rich gifts of that people’s culture, and the harsh truths of its history, and the two of them make those lines vibrate with a passion that is love and celebration and anger all at once. Warren, reedy-voiced and bowstring-taut in the role that was Brando’s, seems at times almost to be choking on his outrage and his contempt—contempt for the powers of Europe, contempt for the “strong Jews, rich Jews, high-up Jews” who sat silent in America and in England “rather than make the faux-pas of seeming a Jew,” contempt even for the God Tevye and Zelda pray faithfully and forlornly to. He’s a frail-looking, boyish thing, a huge-eyed waif drained of his last drop of faith in humanity, a pitiable creature and a terrifying one.
Things drag a little, it’s true, in the several dream sequences—not so much in the two that involve illuminating conversations with wise Solomon and warrior Saul (the latter, like the death-angel who appears much later, makes his appearance in the guise of a giant puppet—a gesture daringly conceived but hesitatingly executed), but certainly in the long scene in which Tevye finds himself pleading the case of European Jewry before a tribunal of nations. By turns blisteringly satirical and deeply serious, the scene lays out a persuasive moral argument for a Jewish homeland and skewers the parochial motivations (empire, domestic politics) of the powers that were playing delaying games with the question in the play’s day. We know how the story ended, of course—which is one reason the sequence seems to plod; other reasons are less-than-rapier-sharp performances among the actors impersonating John Bull, Uncle Sam, and whatever you’d call their French and Russian counterparts. Even here, though, Mazzola works an improvement, using his chorus to surround the “frock coats from whom all blessings flow” with an observant and vocal
rabble—the court of world opinion Hecht was targeting.
What’s most interesting now, though, is how a half-century of history puts it all into a new perspective. Once the long stretch of palaver ends and the action moves back to the graveyard, we learn that the law-abiding occupants of Jerusalem are being attacked—“with weapons of war: guns, bombs, mines”—by a lawless insurgent movement, an angry, militant guerrilla population with which they refuse to negotiate. “If somebody makes a law against humanity,” comes the reply, “who is the lawbreaker?” And moments later, a challenge flung in the teeth of authority: “Our ancient wisdom speaks out of cannon mouths. The youth…die singing and chanting tomorrow’s victory.”
The law-abiding occupants of Jerusalem, of course, were the British, and the youth dying singing—the band a bleak-eyed David leaves the cemetery to join—were an underground militia led by a firebrand named Menachem Begin. The British called him a terrorist, Ben Hecht’s forgotten, surprisingly vital play reminds us, and they built a fence to keep his ragtag brothers out. CP