Theater & Dance
Review
"Finks"

By: Joe Gilford
Produced by: TheatreWorks Silicon Valley
Directed by: Giovanna Sardelli
Featuring: Jim Stanek, Donna Vivino, Leo Ash Evens, Gabriel Marin, Robert Sicular, Michael Barrett Austin, Richard Frederick, and George Psarras
Stage manager: Randall K. Lum
Scenic design: Andrea Bechert
Choreographer: Dottie Lester-White
Costume design: Cathleen Edwards
Lighting design: Steven B. Mannshardt
Sound design: Jake Rodriguez
When: Previews June 6-8; opens June 9; closes July 1, 2018
Where: Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro Street, Mountain View
Tickets: $40-$100 (savings available. Visit https://www.theatreworks.org/201718-season/201718-season/finks/ or call 650-463-1960

Vivino, Stanek
Kevin Berne / TheatreWorks
Donna Vivino as Natalie at Café Society, where Jim Stanek as comedian Mickey is performing in the comic drama in "Finks," presented by TheatreWorks Silicon Valley at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, June 6 to July 1, 2018.
Reliving the horrors
of the blacklist with 'Finks'
Dancing and comedy help relieve the tension
of the HUAC tortures of 1950s entertainers
June 13, 2018

It's history! It's a musical! It's a comedy — no wait, it's sad (at times), so it must be a drama!

What it is is "Finks," a semi-biographical California premiere of an unusual play by Joe Gilford about how his Broadway-and-Hollywood parents — and many other celebrities — were raked through the mud during the 1950s by the supposedly patriotic House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC).

The emphasis is on the word "Un-American," because that's really what this committee was.

It's likely few people under 60 understand what went on in that era, when anyone who was a "progressive" — which included almost all of those who made their living in film, television or theater — was automatically labeled a Communist (or at least a Communist sympathizer).

It was known as being "blacklisted," which, in essence meant that the Hollywood studios wouldn't hire you, not a trivial thing when you consider that some show biz folks were out of work for a decade or more.

How this all came about isn't really part of Gilford's story. He focuses on how many entertainers resisted testifying before HUAC for years, yet many eventually were worn down and gave up the names of their friends who were fellow progressives.

So where does the singing and dancing come in?

Happily, "Finks" devotes far more minutes to comedy and musical numbers than it does to the one-note HUAC hearings, which are almost always dreary and degrading.

Lots of well-known names get thrown around in "Finks": Lee J. Cobb, Elia Kazan, Red Buttons, Zero Mostel, yet the characters with lines in Gilford's version are fictitious. There's a dynamic little spitfire named Natalie who is the resident organizer of what HUAC calls the "Working Artist Section of the Communist Party." She lives, eats and breathes to get everyone she knows to become an active member, because "sticking together is the only way to win."

There's Mickey, a lounge club singer/comedian who is vehemently noncommittal about participating in Natalie's group. But he's no match for her, because, as she once tells him, "You weren't chosen; you were drafted."

And there's a soft-spoken, buff, redheaded dancer named Bobby, who is gay at a time when such a label would pretty much end his career.

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All three of these characters are well defined, as is the actor and painter, Fred, who refuses to give up his friends to the committee, is sent to prison and, after his release, takes his own life.

The quartet of actors who inhabit these people are uniformly excellent, none more so than an amazing little ball of fire named Donna Vivino (the lone female in "Finks"), who wears out the audience just from watching her peripatetic moves (and listening to her motor mouth!).

Vivino sings, dances a la Ginger Rogers, charms, cajoles, entices and simply commands the stage whenever she's on it (which is almost all the time). And her scene toward play's end when she answers the HUAC chairman's questions with questions is simply irresistible.

The men are equally memorable in their own ways. It takes a while for Jim Stanek to find his footing as Mickey, the affable lounge singer who doesn't stand a chance once Natalie sets her sights on him. His is perhaps the most human portrayal, however, especially as he weighs giving up a promising television career or "finking" on his friends.

As Bobby, the closeted gay dancer (Natalie is his Beard), Leo Ash Evens also has some memorable scenes, and his dancing is tre magnifique! Gabriel Marin may not be totally realistic as a painter, but his later scenes, in front of the committee and serving time for refusing to testify, are his best.

Congressman Francis Walter served as chairman of the real HUAC and in Gilford's dramatization, Robert Sicular plays that real-life character with demonic zeal and fervor. All of the other male actors played several roles and performed them exceptionally well.

But there are two major faults with this TheatreWorks' production — and neither is the fault of director Giovanna Sardelli, who whipped the cast into a frenzy both energy-wise and intensity-wise.

One is that Gilford's script, which he wrote because his own parents, actors Jack Gilford and Madeline Lee Gilford, suffered through being blacklisted for many years because they refused to fink out their friends. Gilford rightly imagined most audiences wouldn't sit through 2 ½ hours of a play that only concentrated on the HUAC hearings and the consequences of testifying — or not testifying.

But to combine it with fluffy song-and-dance musical numbers is just bizarre. It's not that the dancing isn't great — thanks to Dottie Lester-White's swoon-worthy choreography — it just seems that sometimes the juxtaposition doesn't work.

The other fault is the very elongated stage at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts. The courtroom hearings take place center stage and are always visible (although sometimes in shadow). But that leaves a very small footprint for those dance numbers. Even worse, during Act 1, some scenes where entertainment folks gathered to plot their strategies against the congressional committee are way over on stage left, so that folks at stage right are far, far away. The staging is reversed for Act 2 (to make it even?) so that some action and Natalie and Mickey's apartment is on that narrow stage left real estate.

But the acting, the singing and dancing — and Cathleen Edwards' excellent costumes (most especially several of Natalie's dresses) — are spot on. And for those who need a course or a refresher course on that very sordid chapter of American congressional history, "Finks" may fill the bill.

As the pianist (George Psarras) sings, "Who's going to investigate the man who investigates me?"

In the end, it's Mickey who has the biggest moral decision to make. He now has a wife and child, and he's being offered a television series if he names names. He refuses to fink on them, but that gives him little comfort. Although Natalie tells him, "What you did was right," Mickey isn't so sure. "Why did I do it? Did I change the world? Why?"

If nothing else, after the show you'll be able to engage in some lively conversation with others in the audience.

Email Joanne Engelhardt at JoanneEngelhardt@regardingarts.com

Vivino, Sicular
Kevin Berne / TheatreWorks
Donna Vivino as Natalie, left, is questioned by Robert Sicular as Representative Walter on the witness stand in "Finks," presented by TheatreWorks Silicon Valley at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, June 6 to July 1, 2018.
Vivino, Evens
Kevin Berne / TheatreWorks
Donna Vivino as Natalie, left, and Leo Ash Evens as Bobby do the Lindy Hop in "Finks," presented by TheatreWorks Silicon Valley at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts June 6 to July 1, 2018.


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