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THEATER REVIEW : Stellar ‘Names’ Examines Dangers of Demagoguery

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SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In theater, it’s timing, not time, that is of the essence. Although expositionally unwieldy at points, Mark Kemble’s “Names” at the Matrix is a miracle of timing, from the exceptional performances to its freighted political message, a clarion warning against the dangers of demagoguery.

The play propounds a fictionalized meeting at the Algonquin Hotel in 1952 between former members of the famed Group Theatre. It’s the height of McCarthyism, and Group alums are getting heat from the House Committee on Un-American Activities, as suspected Communist sympathizers.

It’s easy to draw parallels between “Names” and “An Enemy of the People,” now at the Ivy Substation. Ibsen’s drama, adapted by Arthur Miller, could well be a companion piece to Kemble’s. Both plays revolve around individuals who sacrifice everything battling governmental corruption, while those around them are selling out.

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In “Names,” the doomed hero is John Garfield (John C. Mooney), who catapulted to Hollywood stardom playing tough guys with hearts. A tough guy off screen too, Garfield won’t roll over on his friends, even to get off the blacklist and save his career--even his life. In fact, it’s Garfield who engineered this meeting. He’s burning brightly, a self-immolating beacon lighting the way to moral high ground.

Blind to Garfield’s example, Elia Kazan (Paul Lieber) points to quite a different path. Kazan willingly cooperates with the committee and advises the others to do so as well. “I’ve done nothing wrong,” insists Kazan, but under his self-assured facade, we see the cost of his desperate rationalization.

Also present at the Algonquin is actress-turned-teacher Stella Adler (Dixie Carter), who despite her diva-sized temperament realizes that she’s small potatoes as far as the committee is concerned. So, relatively speaking, is Adler’s distinguished critic husband Harold Clurman (Charles Lanyer) and her actor brother Luther Adler (Clayton Landey). Method guru Lee Strasberg (Greg Mullavey) takes refuge behind “the work” like a shellshocked soldier behind the barricades. All pray that their obscurity will shield them.

Group luminary Clifford Odets (Joel Polis) is another story. Recently subpoenaed, the frazzled and tormented playwright is coming to the conclusion that he just doesn’t have the moral wherewithal to resist. It’s a sad lesson for bellboy Manny Damski (Gil Cates Jr.), himself an aspiring playwright, to learn about his idol.

“Names” has its structural flaws, and Kemble goes over the top in a few key monologues, but it is an important play, crisply directed and pristinely performed by a stellar ensemble. * “Names,” Matrix Theater, 7657 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles. Thursdays-Sundays, 8 p.m. Ends Aug. 20. $25. (213) 660-8587. Running time: 2 hours, 25 minutes.

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