Nathan Lane in Trumbo
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Nathan Lane in Trumbo
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
From 1947, when Dalton Trumbo was blacklisted, until 1960, when actor-producer Kirk Douglas insisted that the man's name appear among the credits of Spartacus and director-producer Otto Preminger insisted the same in regard to Exodus, the humiliated Hollywood scribe was unable to claim authorship for any of his many screenplays. Trumbo either used a pseudonym ("Robert Rich" for the Oscar-winning Brave One) or a "front" (Ian McLellan Hunter for Roman Holiday).

Throughout that shameful period in American history, however, Trumbo was able to put his name to the letters he wrote. Collectively published as Additional Dialogue: The Letters of Dalton Trumbo, 1942-1962, these make up most of the intellectually and emotionally thrilling Trumbo. Although a transcript of Trumbo's sly, amusing 1947 appearance before the House Un-American Activities Committee is enacted, it's the brilliance of the letters that will astonish audiences. They're delivered by Nathan Lane in the Trumbo role and introduced by Gordon MacDonald as Trumbo's son, Christopher, who compiled this loving and commanding remembrance.

Trumbo has been acclaimed for the allegorical Spartacus, which today seems corny and attenuated despite occasional pungent exchanges; he's been lauded for Roman Holiday, still a delight for the very reason that it contains no political axe-grinding. But Christopher Trumbo here demonstrates that his dad's letters were his foremost achievement. (The collection, edited by Helen Manfull, is out of print.) In these works of epistolary art, D.T. expresses -- among other things -- cool contempt to erstwhile friends and acquaintances who, as he sees it, sold themselves and their associates out.

With the same rhetorical mastery, he explains his depleted finances to loyal friends, cheers them, and apologizes for slights. He writes an endearing poem to Christopher on his 10th birthday and some years later, when the lad is an undergraduate at Columbia, fires off a hilarious valentine to masturbation. (Christopher reports that it became known on campus as "the letter.") He writes a supernal note of condolence to the mother of a friend, Ray Murphy, who served as one of his fronts. That missive is enough to make strong men weep, while one that Trumbo sends to Albert Maltz -- who had asked for comments on a book he'd written -- ranks with the best work of Jonathan Swift.

Possibly the dramatic high point of the piece is the response Trumbo posts to Guy Endore, who in 1956 had held a meeting of writers where the benefits and even the legality of informing had been put forward. Trumbo writes with white-hot passion about what he believes is a misguided argument. He insists, "[I]f I could take a census of all the American faces I have seen and of all the dead whose graves I have looked on, if I could ask them one simple question: 'Would you like a man who told on his friends?' there would not be one among them who would answer 'Yes.'" This combination of writing from both head and heart marks Trumbo as a man who, while admitting in later life that he had been a member of the Communist party, understood the demands and complexities of patriotism in a country founded on the principles of free speech and dissent.

The facility with which Trumbo took charge of the English language, even more on his stationery than in his scenarios, is Shakespearean. The rhythm and meter of his sentences have the Bard's muscle, lyricism, and humor. Trumbo certainly relished Henry V, if Spartacus is any indication, since the screenplay contains a variation of the St. Crispin's Day speech plus a scene echoing the King's pre-battle tour of his camp. Trumbo also shares the glee Shakespeare had in making up words: Talking about his idleness in Mexico, where he'd taken the family to escape the unpleasant aspects of Los Angeles life, he confesses, "I just slunge around and bipper at people."

"Slunge" and "bipper" are not words that show up in any dictionary, but their meaning is nevertheless absolutely clear. In his epistle to Christopher on the subject of onanism, Trumbo excitedly proclaims, "I was the Prometheus of my secret tribe, a penile virtuoso, a gonadic prodigy, a spermatiferous thunderbolt." How about that "Spermatiferous thunderbolt?" It's surely a phrase that -- bet on this and be a winner -- every male in every Trumbo audience will wish he'd heard from his own father.

Gordon MacDonald and Nathan Lanein Trumbo
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Gordon MacDonald and Nathan Lane
in Trumbo
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Clinging to his convictions, Trumbo emerges as a hero; that's certainly what he is to his son, whose filial adoration is unadulterated, as well as to buddies like Ring Lardner, Jr. But Lardner also included a number of adjectives in his description of Trumbo as related by Christopher. He calls his pal greedy, vain, ruthless, devious, contentious, and short-sighted -- traits that don't surface in this portrait. In accepting the Writers Guild Award in 1970, Trumbo suggested that "[I]t will do no good to search for villains or heroes or saints or devils because there were none; there were only victims," but some might take exception to this backing off from continuing confrontation. Albert Maltz did object, calling the position "factual nonsense" and "a bewildering moral position." Maltz has something there, but Trumbo patrons may be too mesmerized by Trumbo at his wittiest and wiliest to question the villain-less, hero-less assessment, or perhaps they'll judge his remarks as nothing other than an attempt to be modest about his own adamant behavior.

The production given Trumbo, now in an open-ended run at the Westside Theatre after a Mondays-only policy this past spring, is on target. Director Peter Askin and designers Loy Arcenas (scenery), Dennis Diamond (video), Jeff Croiter (lighting), and John Gromada (sound and original music) keep things simple, the more to set off Trumbo's intricate eloquence.

Askin applies the same economy in his measured guidance of the actors. Nathan Lane, looking nothing like Trumbo and not bothering to affect the fellow's mustache (did it come after the blacklist?), is something of a revelation in his wide-lapelled, double-breasted suit, with his hair slicked back and fiercely parted. Maybe his performance here wouldn't be such a surprise had not his Max Bialystock in The Producers fixed him so firmly in the public consciousness as a comic with the kind of nervous energy that fueled the likes of Ed Wynn, Zero Mostel, and Paul Lynde. Many theatergoers may have forgotten Lane's skill as a serious performer -- the sincerity and poignancy he represented in, say, Terrence McNally's Lips Together, Teeth Apart.

Not everyone could bring off Trumbo's outpourings as if they are second-nature, but Lane delivers these fluid sentences and paragraphs as if he'd only just thought and scribbled them and is damned pleased at how well they're turning out. Although he is reading for most of the performance, his nuanced gestures and his eye and mouth motions keep Trumbo alive at every moment. Lane's also in frequent eye contact with Gordon MacDonald, who is every bit as present. Together, these well-teamed actors underline one of the play's most important subtexts: father-son love and respect. (Note that Lane will play Trumbo for four weeks only, followed by a succession of other stars in four-week stands.)

At a time when the Constitution seems to be under new siege, Trumbo is a reminder of how much heroes are needed and what it takes for them to survive.