Jewish Journal

Naming ‘Names’

by Tom Tugend

Posted on Nov. 22, 2001 at 7:00 pm

"Names" director Adam Davidson and producer David Lee Strasberg. Photo by Craig Schwartz

"Names" director Adam Davidson and producer David Lee Strasberg. Photo by Craig Schwartz

Two of the great names in the American theater -- Strasberg and Davidson -- are joining talents to present a play about artistic loyalty and betrayal during the McCarthy era of the 1950s.

The new partnership might be subtitled "The Sons Also Rise" (sorry about that).

Producer David Lee Strasberg is the son of the late, legendary Lee Strasberg, "acting guru of 'The Method,' which shaped a generation of American actors from Brando to De Niro." Adam Davidson is the son of Gordon Davidson, artistic director of the Taper Forum and Ahmanson Theatre, who "defied the perception that there was no theater in Los Angeles."

Both descriptive quotations are from Variety, which listed the two men among the 12 greatest producers and impresarios of the 20th century.

Both young men of the second generation -- Strasberg is 30, Davidson is 37 -- seemed aware but unawed by their paternal legacies during an interview, in which they discussed their upcoming play "Names," previewed the centennial celebration of Lee Strasberg's birth, and touched on their Jewish heritage.

The play by Mark Kemble, running Nov. 23 through Dec. 23, eavesdrops on a meeting of seven luminaries of the famed Group Theatre at New York's Algonquin Hotel on April 9, 1952.

The meeting is fictional, but the appearance the following day of famed director Elia Kazan before the Communist-hunting House Un-American Activities Committee on Un-American Activities is factual.

Appearing as a "friendly" witness, Kazan identified eight theatrical colleagues of the 1930s as Communists, an action whose divisiveness split Hollywood again in 1999, when Kazan received an Oscar for lifetime achievement.

Participating in the meeting are Lee Strasberg and Harold Clurman, two of the three co-founders of the Group Theatre in 1931 (Strasberg later led the equally famous Actors Studio); actor John Garfield; playwright Clifford Odets; actor Luther Adler and his sister, acting teacher Stella Adler; and Kazan, who had already directed such films as "Gentleman's Agreement" and "A Streetcar Named Desire."

Except for Kazan, born in Istanbul to Greek parents, all the participants were Jewish.

"Names" is set during the McCarthy era, but the play primarily examines what the theater and acting are about and the search for truth -- emotional, political and artistic truth, Davidson observes.

Strasberg says that after the Sept. 11 attacks, there was a real question whether it was appropriate to continue and stage "Names." In the end, he and the company decided to go ahead, because they saw a real parallel between the early '50s, with its deep fears of the Communist threat, and the fear of terrorism gripping much of the country now.

Although both young men grew up surrounded by passionate people of the theater, neither followed immediately in his respective father's footsteps.

David Strasberg worked for eight years on economic issues for the government, serving first in the Clinton administration, then under Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan.

Two years ago, he re-entered the family business, carried on by his mother, Anna Strasberg, and is now executive director of the Lee Strasberg Theatre Institutes in Los Angeles and Manhattan.

Adam Davidson says the theater got "unconsciously into my system" through a father "whose work is his life" and a mother who heads her own theatrical publicity agency.

However, he was more excited by film than the stage, while also dabbling in painting and sculpture. His career was launched with an explosive bang when his graduate student project "The Lunch Date" won a 1991 Oscar for best short film and a slew of other honors.

He has since worked as director and actor in feature films and television episodes, and in off-off-Broadway plays.

Both men were raised as self-aware Jews, and both invest their theatrical fellowships with a semireligious aura.

"Our Jewishness was expressed through how we dealt with our companions in the theater," Strasberg says. "They became our extended family, our congregation."

Davidson enlarges on the metaphor. "I think the Group Theatre was like a synagogue, with Lee Strasberg and Harold Clurman as the rabbis."

Nov. 17, 2001, marked the 100th birthday of Lee Strasberg and his son has organized a series of plays and movies to celebrate the centennial year.

These include "Names" and two additional plays, plus two workshop productions; and First Person Cinema Screenings, including Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski's monumental Three Colors Trilogy, represented by "Red," "White" and "Blue," during January.

A tribute to Lee Strasberg will be held Dec. 5 at the Egyptian Theatre, including a screening of "The Godfather: Part II," in which he played the Oscar-nominated part of mobster Hyman Roth.

All other events will be held at the Marilyn Monroe Theatre at the Lee Strasberg Creative Center, 7936 Santa Monica Blvd. in West Hollywood. For information on all events, call (323) 650-7777.

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