Quick, name a pioneering comic actress from the early days of television. Chances are you mentioned Lucille Ball, but before we loved Lucy there was Gertrude Berg, who not only starred in The Goldbergs — the first exposure to Jewish family life for many Americans — but she wrote, directed and produced the entire series, as she had previously done on radio for two decades.
That would be reason enough to celebrate Berg with a nostalgic play, but The Goldbergs has an even more dramatic backstory. For Berg’s co-star Philip Loeb, who played Molly Goldberg’s devoted husband Jake, was wrongly accused of being a Communist during the Red Scare of the early 1950s. The accusation would not only ruin his career, but it took down The Goldbergs with him.
That is the crux of Ordinary Americans, a new play by Joseph McDonough (Edgar & Emily) and directed by William Hayes, commissioned by Palm Beach Dramaworks, which is currently giving the work its world premiere after several developmental stages. The documentary-like tale with tragic overtones is inherently involving even for those with no previous awareness of Berg or The Goldbergs. The episodic, exposition-heavy script falls short of its full potential impact, yet the production is compelling nevertheless.
This is due in large part to the performance by Elizabeth Dimon in the dual roles of Berg and her fictional alter ego, Molly. It sounds like a cliché yet it is true, these are characters that the actress was born to play. Her physical likeness is nothing short of uncanny and she all but channels the warm, language-mangling stereotypical Jewish mother from the Bronx and, in contrast, the tough-minded, articulate business woman who undergoes a test of loyalty to her co-star.
In his Dramaworks debut, area veteran David Kwiat brings a quiet dignity to the role of Loeb, eventually raising his voice in indignation as he testifies before the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee. Dimon, too, has a bravura, albeit softer, scene as she wangles an audience with Catholic Cardinal Francis Spellman, asking him to use his influence on Loeb’s behalf.
Rob Donohoe plays Spellman adroitly, as well as Goldbergs’ cast member Eli Mintz and a handful of other roles. The other two members of the compact cast. Margery Lowe and Tom Wahl, also play multiple parts in a celebration of the chameleon nature of theater. She is most prominently Mrs. Kramer, Molly’s fictional neighbor who hangs out in an adjacent tenement window, sharing gossipy tidbits with Molly. And Wahl is best seen as steely CBS president Frank Stanton who, when backed into a corner by Berg, has the temerity to cancel the high-rated Goldbergs.
Michael Amico has designed a massive unit set, which cleverly places all of the action, in the Goldbergs’ apartment and beyond, inside the television studio. One does wonder whether and how the scenery will fit on the much smaller GableStage playing space when this Ordinary Americans production moves to Coral Gables next month.
Christina Watanabe’s lighting aptly delineates the two worlds of Berg and Goldberg and costume designer Brian O’Keefe also helps the contrast between the humble clothing of the TV family and the well-heeled real-life professionals behind the scenes.
Dramaworks’ producing artistic director Hayes has shepherded this play along from its inception and the improvement from the overlong, stilted script read at the company’s new play festival in January to the swift, intermissionless work today is remarkable. True, McDonough clumsily shoehorns facts about Berg into the dialogue (“Say, weren’t you the first recipient of the Emmy Award for Best Actress?”), but such inelegant writing can be easily fixed.
Dramaworks has focused on developing new plays in recent seasons and Ordinary Americans is the most satisfying result of such efforts. Subsequent productions – and there should be many – would be well advised to seek out Dimon to anchor their casts.
ORDINARY AMERICANS, Palm Beach Dramaworks, 201 Clematis St., West Palm Beach. Through Sunday, Jan. 5. $77. Call 561-514-4042 or visit www.palmbeachdramaworks.org.