In a new and remarkably frank autobiographical play, "The Bad Friend," Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist, playwright and screenwriter Jules Feiffer has illuminated a chapter in social and political history that both Broadway and Hollywood has generally avoided. Even such an eminent playwright as Arthur Miller only alluded to the perils of McCarthyism by comparing them to the infamous witch-hunt in Colonial Salem, Mass., in his great drama and film "The Crucible."
Feiffer has courageously drawn on memories of growing up left wing in Brooklyn in an émigré Socialist family from Eastern Europe at a time when Stalin's memory was being denounced by his Kremlin successors. He admits to having been "haunted" for 50 years by the domestic Cold War that came to be called McCarthyism.
"Everthing I describe in the play, I saw," Feiffer, 74, said in an interview. "So all of this I felt I had to put together, the boy lefty's right of passage, but I didn't want to put myself in it as a character. So I cross-dressed myself into an 18-year-old girl."
The play, set in the 1950s, is having its premiere at the Newhouse Theater at Lincoln Center under the understated direction of Jerry Zachs on a almost bare stage against a stagewide skyline of New York's financial district as seen from Brooklyn Heights' Promenade. The action is equally minimal in an uneven play that comes alive only in the second of two acts.
"Much of what occurs in this play reflects in substance, if not in fact, that period of my life and its aftereffects," Feiffer said. " It was a difficult time. The people you put your faith in turned out to be something other than they claimed to be. For me, it came down to the questions: Whom do you trust? Who are the models?"
Performed on a raised platform with a few pieces of furniture arranged around the periphery, the play introduces the audience to the cast in the oddly awkward first act. First there is 18-year-old high school senior Rose, Feiffer's alter ego who resists being indoctrinated by her family into following the American Communist Party line. She would like to be an artist, detached from politics and the blind idealism espoused by her parents, Naomi and Shelly Wallach, who suspect her of being a liberal - the greatest crime of all.
Naomi is a rigid, humorless Party hack obsessed with anti-Semitism, always ready for a demonstration on behalf of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg or against Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy. Shelly is her hen-pecked husband, less fanatical in his Communism and clearly shaken by the post-mortem revelation that Stalin was engaged in a pogrom against Russian Jews starting with the so-called Jewish Doctors' Plot.
Visiting the family occasionally from Hollywood is Naomi's dapper brother, Uncle Morty King (formerly Klein), who has made a career of slipping Communist propaganda into Western movies he writes. When push comes to shove and he is forced to appear before a Congressional investigating committee, Morty betrays Naomi by testifying she recruited him for membership in a Party-sponsored youth organization.
Morty tries to make up for this later when he wins an Academy Award for film direction in 1978 and thanks Naomi for making his career possible in his acceptance speech. Naomi sits center-stage in agony, listening on the radio and stunned by her brother's hypocrisy since she always had accused him of "selling out to Hollywood." It's the climax of the play but fails to make the emotional impact intended.
An odd subplot is Rose's friendship with a gentlemanly middle-aged man she meets on the promenade where he is always taking photographs or painting the Lower Manhattan skyline. He becomes something of a father figure to the young woman who is shocked to find out from newspaper photographs that he is really Col. Rudolf Ivanovich Abel, the highest ranking Soviet spy ever arrested in the United States.
Abel lived in Brooklyn under the name of Emil R. Goldfus. In the play he never discusses anything but art with Rose and seems to be completely oblivious concerning her family's Marxist convictions. Whether he is photographing and painting the New York skyline for espionage purposes is never made clear. His meaningless insertion into what might have been a powerful family drama weakens the play.
So the audience is left baffled by a playwright who obviously has lived the material he writes about (his older sister was a Communist Party member who lived in fear of persecution) but is unable to make a point concerning its significance except as the stuff of a nearly forgotten chapter in an era of national turmoil.
What "A Bad Friend" has going for it is several very fine performances that go a long way toward making endurable this confused 36-scene play with its crudely abrupt transitions.
Kala Savage is remarkably sympathetic in the role of the loquacious Rose, an intellectually probing young woman with a childish naivete about people, especially a presumptuous young man named Fallon, who stalks her and asks questions that clearly indicate he is an FBI agent. This is Savage's New York stage debut, and she is definitely an actress to watch.
Jan Maxwell turns in a sterling performance as the didactic, uncompromising Naomi, a good woman beneath all the Marxist bluster, and Jonathan Hadary evokes pity as Shelly, Naomi's browbeaten spouse, although he could make his vacillating character a little more interesting. As the hot-shot film writer, Morty, Mark Feurerstein is no less than riveting.
Larry Bryggman is deft in his depiction of Emil as an unthreatening, almost faceless man of mystery, just the opposite of the handsome Fallon, who is played with chilling bonhomie by David Harbour.
Douglas Stein designed the simple set, lit with abstract designs by Paul Gallo. Jan Hartley has provided some historic projections on three screens of Stalin, the Rosenbergs, and other personalities of the era along with newspaper headlines. Costumes by William Ivey Long catch the period perfectly, especially Rose's demure but attractive full-skirted dresses.