Theater & Dance

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 or call 650-463-1960

Vivino, Evens
Kevin Berne / TheatreWorks Silicon Valley
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.
Clever script limns the truth
about blacklisting in the 1950s
TheatreWorks stages a fine production
of Joe Gilford play in Mountain View
June 13, 2018

This review originally appeared in the Palo Alto Weekly.

Joe Gilford's script for "Finks," his slightly fictionalized story of what his parents — comics and activists Jack Gilford and Madeline Lee Gilford — experienced during the Hollywood blacklistings of the 1950s, does a clever thing.

Rather than just subject his audience to the grim history of how the House Un-American Activities Committee ruined hundreds of entertainment careers, Gilford shows us the entertainment.

So, the audience gets to hear some jokes from Mickey Dobbs, who is loosely based on Jack Gilford. And see him do a hilarious pantomime that opens Act II — of a theater-goer bothered by a buzzing insect — that I think was based on a bit that Gilford actually did. And they get to see some lovely dancing from Leo Ash Evens, who plays Bobby Gerard, who is based on Jerome Robbins.

"Finks" opens on a handsome, huge set in the TheatreWorks Silicon Valley production, with the dais of HUAC in the center, and a modest recreation of the club Café Society in New York at audience left, and another space at audience right that is used later.

We hear the HUAC sergeant at arms call a hearing to order, and Robert Sicular, as Rep. Walter, begin his political babble, just as comic Mickey is starting his routine at Café Society.

Mickey does a very good Jimmy Durante imitation, and Walter starts interrogating such finks as Elia Kazan, Budd Schulberg and Martin Berkeley.

The show's only woman, Donna Vivino, is a force of nature as producer Natalie Meltzer, who sets out to win Mickey's love. "I'm laying out lines like railroad tracks!" she says. "Connect the dots!"

Mickey and all their entertainer friends are worried about being caught up in the red scare, and they have reason to be. If their names appear in the magazine Red Channels or in a bad way in Walter Winchell's column, club owners may cut their contracts, advertisers might start boycotting their TV shows.

— Advertising —

Bobby has two issues: He did attend some meetings of leftist performers, and he's gay, which in the 1950s was very dangerous.

Evens, who was excellent in "Somewhere" at TheatreWorks in 2013, has a great introduction to the audience as Bobby when he is rehearsing choreography for a show, and cursing himself and the dancers he will eventually have to teach. Evens has grown more barrel-chested since 2013 (a lot of bench pressing, maybe?), but dances beautifully.

Natalie, who has been Bobby's "beard" and sometimes his lover, tries to buck him up. Evens has a grim role to play, because while Bobby staves off HUAC for a while, he is forced to name names when he is blackmailed for his homosexuality. He names the Gilfords.

Natalie is very angry. But Bobby ironically and angrily defends his action: "Keep the world safe from the homos! You want to shave my head, dress me in burlap and run me through the streets?" he asks.

"I only get an hour for lunch," says Natalie.

Mickey is kind of a fraidy cat in this show, who has to be coerced by Natalie not only into loving her, but performing at meetings of left-leaning actors and otherwise speaking up and fighting the good fight.

In real life, Gilford explained, his dad, Jack Gilford, was as committed to leftist causes such as civil rights for black people as was his mother, Madeline Lee Gilford.

"Mickey's conflict about what he would actually do in the end is about the furthest I went to fictionalize for dramatic purposes," Joe Gilford said in a program feature by Syche Phillips. "In real life, there was never any doubt as to my father's intentions."

But Mickey's fears and doubts work beautifully in this play, such as when he is heartbroken when a blacklisted friend dies, and for what he does when he is finally dragged before HUAC.

That is a great scene that maybe could have been a bit longer. Except it is followed not long after by a very beautiful scene, when Bobby is dancing, to the background sound of Martin Berkeley naming names. Berkeley, a one-time Broadway performer who became a Hollywood screenwriter, named more people than anyone else — at least 150, some of which were bogus — so there were lots of names to accompany Bobby's lovely dancing.

Humor and drama through the first act, and a second act that closes with moving and meaningful scenes.

Giovanna Sardelli, who directed the New York premiere of this play in 2013, also directed this production, the California premiere. In her notes for the program, she wrote, "In 2013, I felt pretty confident that America had recovered its sense of decency — that history wouldn't repeat itself. In 2018, I'm frightened that I no longer feel that way. 'Finks' reminds us of what is at stake and how ordinary people must stand for decency. It provides us guidance for these uncertain times, when performers like Jack Gilford fought to do what they did best: keep us laughing."

Six of the eight actors in this show are very well known from San Francisco Bay Area stages. Michael Barrett Austin, who handles several roles, including some of the finks, has starred at San Jose Stage, Berkeley Rep, Hillbarn Theatre and others. Richard Frederick, who did a great Lee J. Cobb impression, has been in a number of TheatreWorks shows, including "Emma." George Psarras, who doubled as the Café Society pianist and the sergeant at arms, was in "Water By the Spoonful" at TheatreWorks and is a regular at City Lights in San Jose.

Gabriel Marin, who was very moving as actor and artist Fred Lang, was in "Superior Donuts" at TheatreWorks. Robert Sicular, who moves from celebrity sycophant to attack dog as Rep. Walter, has stood out on every major Bay Area stage.

There are no black people in this show, and there should be. The script even calls for one black character. Café Society was the first really integrated club in New York — even the famous Cotton Club wouldn't let black people in, unless they were celebrities. Café Society let everybody in. And Jack Gilford actually shared a dressing room there with Billie Holiday. He dated Lena Horne. To not have a black actor is a shocking omission.

Andrea Bechert's set is handsome, and versatile. There is a background of vertical wood-looking panels that stretches side to side across the bid Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts stage, and up nearly to the flies. Actors enter from at least four places, including offset spaces between the panels.

Cathleen Edwards nicely evoked the 1950s with her costume design. Steven B. Mannshardt did his usual excellent work with lighting design, no small achievement, with three main areas of the stage to light for different purposes. Sound designer Jake Rodriguez handily provided the sounds of unseen court reporters, TV soundtracks and ringing phone.

The one odd thing was a loud crackling sound and oddly flashing lights. I had to hear and see that four times before I understood it was supposed to be photo journalists with old-fashioned light bulbs. At first I thought a spotlight was shorting out.

Dottie Lester-White choreographed the fine dancing of Evens and Vivino.

Email John Orr at

Psarras, Stanek, Sicular
Kevin Berne / TheatreWorks Silicon Valley
George Psarras as the sergeant at arms removes Jim Stanek as an unruly Mickey after questioning by Robert Sicular as Representative Walters in "Finks," presented by TheatreWorks Silicon Valley at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts June 6 to July 1, 2018.
Stanek, Vivino, Evens, Marin
Kevin Berne / TheatreWorks Silicon Valley
Donna Vivino as Natalie, center, steps in during a heated conversation between Jim Stanek as Mickey, left, and Leo Ash Evens as Bobby, right, while Gabriel Marin as their friend Fred looks on in "Finks," presented by TheatreWorks Silicon Valley at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, June 6 to July 1, 2018.
Stanek, Marin, Vivino
Kevin Berne / TheatreWorks Silicon Valley
Jim Stanek as Mickey, Gabriel Marin as Fred and Donna Vivino as Natalie, from left, explain the Red Channels during a benefit performance in "Finks," presented by TheatreWorks Silicon Valley at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts June 6 to July 1, 2018.