Hearts and Letters

Speak truth to power: Nathan Lane as TrumboPhoto: Joan Marcus

Christopher Trumbo’s tribute to his father, Dalton, invokes a gifted screenwriter who, refusing to answer the House Un-American Activities Committee’s question about whether he had been a Communist, spent one year in jail and was blacklisted for a good many more thereafter. Using fronts and aliases, he won two Oscars and also wrote a successful novel and stage play. After difficult times for himself and his family—including one especially hapless period in Mexico—Trumbo was finally reinstated, eventually even winning the Writers Guild Laurel Award.

Trumbo, based mostly on Dalton’s letters, is about an iconic American figure: the stiff-necked nonconformist and troublemaker who defies injustice from above and disdains sympathy from all around. He is brave, more sinned against than sinning, a champion of the people with a haughty intelligence and wounding wit perfect for losing support. Nathan Lane is very good as Trumbo until near the end, when a long letter to his son about masturbation, which would have been funnier read dryly, is hammed up, for which the director, Peter Askin, is also to blame. Gordon MacDonald is fine as sundry others. Besides shedding light on an inglorious chapter in American history, Trumbo also is a morality tale. It reminds us how easily people cave in, how widespread cowardice is, and how rare courage.

In many an adult there lurks a caged sophomore yearning to get out. A good farce is such an egress. A sophomore is, etymologically and psychologically, part sophisticate and part moron, or part smart and part ass. The great farceurs appealed through the proper proportions: two-thirds smart and one-third ass. If you will settle for the reverse dosage, The Thing About Men can be an enjoyable experience. Based on a German screenplay by the talented Doris Dörrie, the musical has book and lyrics by Joe DiPietro and music by Jimmy Roberts.

The nucleus of reality is a bit tenuous; the farcical overlay, a trifle too thick. The neglected housewife, Lucy, exasperated by buttoned-up adman hubby Tom’s workaholism and philandering, might indeed take on an antithetical lover, the longhaired bohemian painter and slob Sebastian, who both attentively listens to and ardently romances her—never mind that he has been known to womanize more than Tom. Credible, too, is Tom’s double-standard male-chauvinist shock when a hickey on Lucy’s neck proves tit for his tat.

But now the farce turns forced. Under the assumed name Milo, Tom moves in as Sebastian’s loftmate, and the two, despite the latter’s prospering affair with Lucy, become bosom buddies. Yet they never tell all about their jobs, and despite Tom’s funny slips and weird behavior to avoid confronting Lucy, Sebastian never catches on. Would Lucy fall in love with someone so dense? And would it be so easy for Tom to turn him into his replica? And why isn’t Lucy a more developed character?

Roberts’s tunes, with one or two exceptions, do not rise above the routine; DiPietro’s lyrics, despite some shrewd points, show too much strain and the occasional clumsiness. The plot displays more twists (some cunning, some merely cutesy) than a hooked worm. But the production couldn’t be more ingenious and polished. Richard Hoover’s imaginative unit set becomes paradoxically versatile when augmented by Elaine J. McCarthy’s suggestive projections, resulting in a piquantly metamorphosing ambience. Gregory Gale’s costumes and Ken Billington’s lighting adroitly blend a little fantasy into perspicacity. Above all, Mark Clements’s direction is as tirelessly inventive as it is pertly insightful.

No one could better the performances. Marc Kudisch (Tom) is dopily debonair, sings commandingly, and has enough comic tricks to fill an encyclopedia. Ron Bohmer (Sebastian) is equally good as Tom’s opposite and, later, as his duplicate. Leah Hocking’s Lucy neatly transforms herself from a hangdog housewife into a happy adulteress and something beyond. Daniel Reichard and Jennifer Simard assume a variety of goofily guffaw-eliciting roles with comedic virtuosity. Some critics have called The Thing About Men a sitcom, but the day sitcom achieves this proficiency, you’ll find me glued to my TV.

Hearts and Letters