When playwright Jeffrey Sweet’s friend Kate Draper was working in her first Broadway show, Tommy Tune’s A Day in Hollywood, a Night in the Ukraine, in the early 1980s he asked her a theoretical question.
What would her father say if it was in fact directed not by Tune but by Jerome Robbins, who had named people to the House Committee on Un-American Activities in the 1950s.
Her father, dancer Paul Draper, was implicated in that list.
Draper told him that while he would disapprove, he wouldn’t likely say anything. “And I thought that if the father would say something, that would make a play,” Sweet says.
And out of that idea, The Value of Names, running at the Toronto Centre for the Arts from Feb. 19, was born.
“It is about an actor who is blacklisted,” Sweet says. “He made something of a comeback in a sitcom, but he’s now in retirement and lives in California. His daughter who he doesn’t see very much because she lives in New York, is a young actress. She comes to stay with him because she’s been cast in a show in Los Angeles. In the middle of the rehearsals for the play, the director takes sick. So, they bring in a new director and he’s the guy who named her father to the House of Un-American Activities Committee.”
This puts her in a difficult situation because her father has never forgiven this man who used to be his best friend. Does she stay with the show or does she leave?
“She makes noises that she might leave and the director hears of this and comes up to the house, ostensibly to persuade her to stay with the play, but really because he’s looking for an excuse to meet her father. Not to get him to forgive but to get past it so that they can be friends again.”
A big conversation ensues between these two former friends. Both wishing there were terms that they could reach each other and at the same time trying to win the other over to their view, so that they can build some kind of a bridge.
The Value of Names was first produced as a one-act play at the Actors Theatre of Louisville in 1982, and soon became Sweet’s most produced play to date. It so resonated with actor Jack Klugman, he took to the stage in it at six different theatres.
Sweet says that frequently when you find yourself working on something, you become a magnet for exactly the information you need.
“I was starting to work on the play, but I was having trouble writing this from the perspective of the director because I disagreed with him.”
Sweet happened to attend an event that featured Elia Kazan, the writer and actor who testified at the committee hearings in 1952 for which he received strong, negative criticism.
“Someone in the audience brought up blacklisting and was taking a shot at Kazan, who gave over names. In that moment, I thought wherever he goes, whoever he meets, Kazan knows this is what people think of him, an SOB who informed on his friends. And that gave me the ability to write from the inside of that character.”
Ironically, he wrote the play two years before Kazan’s autobiography came out and there are actual lines in it almost word for word, that Sweet had written in his play.
Sweet, whose mother is Jewish, says he grew up loving and identifying with satiric comedy which largely is a product of Jewish comedic voices from the ’50s like Mel Brooks, Lenny Bruce and Joan Rivers. He addresses this in his one-man show You Only Shoot the Ones You Love about Jews fleeing Cossacks.
This is the first time one of Sweet’s plays is being performed in Canada. A big fan of the Toronto and Stratford theatre scenes, he is thrilled that he has finally gotten his foot in the door here.
Teatron Toronto Jewish Theatre presents Jeffrey Sweet’s comedy/drama The Value of Names starring Allan Price and
Justine Lewis and directed by Ari Weisberg at the Toronto Centre for the Arts –
Studio Theatre from Feb. 19 to March 1. www.teatrontheatre.com.