Here’s the scenario. You’re hauled before a congressional subcommittee and asked to share details of personal relationships you once had with former friends — people with whom you once shared a belief system, but perhaps no longer do.
Would you name names?
We may be well into the 21stcentury, but the era of the 1950s blacklist is alive and frightfully well in “Fellow Travelers,” Jack Canfora’s gripping new play now enjoying its world premiere at Bay Street Theater.
And what a play it is.
Artfully directed by Michael Wilson, “Fellow Travelers” revisits the era of the House Un-American Activities Committee(HUAC) through the lives of three major cultural icons — film and stage director Elia Kazan (Vince Nappo), playwright Arthur Miller (Wayne Alan Wilcox), and Marilyn Monroe (Rachel Spencer Hewitt), the enigmatic movie star who dated Kazan and married Miller.
Capturing the fragile nuances of such a famous power-trio during one of the most infamous periods in U.S. history would be a major undertaking for any playwright, yet Canfora triumphs admirably in “Fellow Travelers.” Not only is the script itself riveting, but Bay Street’s production is populated by a supremely talented cast capable of maneuvering nimbly through the dozen years the play traverses over the course of two acts — key years, not only in terms of the history of theater and film, but with the fear of Communism that ran amok in this country as the Cold War was heating up.
“Fellow Travelers” opens in 1951 with Kazan and Miller, close friends and creative partners, aboard the Super Chief passenger train running between Chicago and Los Angeles. The writer and the director are headed to Hollywood and a meeting with Columbia Pictures’ head of production Harry Cohn (Mark Blum). Kazan is fresh from his cinematic triumph with Tennessee Williams’ “A Streetcar Named Desire” and the two are hopeful Cohn will produce their latest screenplay — “The Hook,” about a group of longshoremen working on the Brooklyn waterfront.
At the meeting Cohn, indeed, expresses interest in making “The Hook” — not because he loves the script, but because he’s hoping to do more commercial films with Kazan in the future. But Cohn explains that “The Hook” is going nowhere without the approval and input of the FBI’s anti-Communism man in Hollywood, Roy Brewer (Jeffrey Bean), who needs to have his own changes added to the script before the film can be made.
Miller refuses to play ball and vows to head back to New York, but not before meeting Kazan’s girlfriend, a fresh-faced young actress with a troubled past named Marilyn Monroe. The early chemistry between Miller and Monroe is undeniable. Both are sensitive, quiet souls and in the years that follow, in addition to becoming Miller’s wife, Monroe will play a pivotal role in mending the friendship between the playwright and the director. This comes after Kazan, a former member of the Communist Party, appears before HUAC to “name names” of those he knew in the party while working with the Group Theatre in the 1930s.
As the play progresses, Kazan fervently buys into the notion — if only to convince himself — that Communism is a true menace to American democracy. He maintains he’s doing the right thing by providing names to HUAC. When Kazan takes out a full page ad in the New York Times to explain himself to the entertainment industry, Miller, like many others in the business, is disgusted and turns his back on his old friend. A few years later Miller is denied a passport and hauled before HUAC himself, but unlike Kazan, remains steadfast in his refusal to offer up names of others.
If the plot of that early film pitch by Miller and Kazan for “The Hook” sounds vaguely familiar, it should. After the falling out between them, the script resurfaces as “On The Waterfront,” Kazan’s Academy Award-winning film written by Budd Schulberg in which “naming names” is portrayed as the patriotic thing for Marlon Brando’s character to do.
And Miller? He wrote his own well-received response to the black-listing episode — his play “The Crucible,” in which making false accusations of witchcraft against others is a quick path to power for a group of young women in 1600s Salem, Massachusetts.
While the facts of the blacklisting period are well-etched into the consciousness of most Americans, what this play does so capably is introduce us to another side of all three of its main characters.
We get to know Miller, the Jewish writer with East Coast sensibilities and strong loyalties, through an immensely deep well of emotion which he channels adroitly in his writing, but is often unable to tap when it comes to navigating his personal relationships. Then there’s Kazan, the brash and outspoken Greek-American director, writer and former Communist, who, though highly successful, is tremendously fearful of losing his career if he doesn’t testify before HUAC — and ironically, experiences a backlash among his peers that tarnishes his reputation for the rest to his life. Finally, there’s Monroe, initially, a wanna-be actress willing to sleep her way to the top who, under Miller’s influences, sets out to defy her blonde bombshell image by coming to New York to study the craft of acting at The Actor’s Studio, which was, coincidentally, cofounded by Kazan.
It is in a scene at The Actor’s Studio where we witness Monroe quietly, yet firmly, bringing the two old friends back together. While Monroe herself will soon fade forever and tragically from the scene, her impact resurfaces in Miller’s play “After the Fall,” a 1964 production that brings he and Kazan back together again and is the final scene in “Fellow Travelers.”
In truth, the big events portrayed in this play grabbed the headlines of the day, but it is the quieter story of the trio that lived it which go to the heart of “Fellow Travelers.” The script is powerful in its message, but the subtlety of each actor’s delivery provides the ultimate truth. With all its conflicts and shades of betrayal, “Fellow Travelers” conveys the confounding times in which Miller, Kazan and Monroe lived, as well as the cautious manner in which one had to maneuver in order to protect both the personal and the professional self.
As Kazan and Miller, Nappo and Wilcox are true masters of the craft, portraying their characters in great empathetic detail. As Monroe, Hewitt is also amazing, channeling the soft spoken sex symbol well aware of her feminine charms but with compassionate intuition for which she was rarely given credit for possessing. It’s a complex portrayal that helps explain how simultaneously tough and fragile Monroe could be as a person.
Pulling this powerful play together is a set by designer Jeff Cowie, who offers the 1950s in all its shades of black, white and gray, just like the television sets on which Americans watched the HUAC proceedings. Even a projection of the American flag is rendered in monochromatic shades of gray — perhaps an apt metaphor for lives lived in the face of many questions when there are few absolute answers to be found.
“Fellow Travelers” by Jack Canfora runs through June 17 at Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor. The production also features costumes by David C. Woolard, lighting by Ken Billington, sound by Mark Bennett and projections by Rocco DiSanti. For tickets, visit baystreet.org or call (631) 725-9500.