“Ordinary Americans” In Extraordinarily Awful Times

My last review was of Watson, a show which explores the consequences of giving into nefarious pressure. Playwright Joseph McDonough’s new play, Ordinary Americans, instead illustrate the cost of speaking up against the powers that be. 

Ordinary Americans’ current production at Palm Beach Dramaworks is another co-world premiere. The show runs there until this January 5th but will be remounted, starring much of the same cast at Miami’s Gablestage starting on January 18th.

Though Ordinary Americans’ script occasionally seemed a bit disjointed and rote, this production showcased some excellent actors and explored an interestingly painful period in American history. The play’s primary subject is Gertrude Berg of The Goldbergs, a sitcom (no relation to the current ABC sitcom, by the way) that aired as a radio drama from 1929 to 1946 and on the then-novel invention television from 1949 to 1956. 

I came into the play, not at all familiar with either, and initially found the story a little complex to get into, especially during the amusing but somewhat schticky and superfluous recreated scenes from The Goldbergs itself.

However, I became more engaged as the story delved deeper into the question of whether or not Berg would consent to her superiors’ request that she fire Phillip Loeb, a Goldbergs actor. The latter had been falsely accused of communism by Joseph McCarthy and co. 

Loeb was one of many performing arts professionals who became “blacklisted” throughout Hollywood due to such unfounded accusations and was also one of a suspiciously high number of McCarthy victims who, as Ordinary Americans point out, were Jewish. While I loathe making a Holocaust comparison, it’s one implied by some of Berg’s dialogue that expresses dismay at the rise of what she calls “American Naziism.” 

(Happy Chanukah to us, right? Note that targeted an unusual number of homosexuals, as well, an occurrence which is sometimes referred to as the “lavender scare” as opposed to the entire debacle’s “red scare.”)

I can see the intention behind the play’s tight focus on Gertrude Berg and her close associates. I wonder if it may have benefited from a broader scope and focused more on how the pervasive climate of fear affected an entire industry or even a whole nation than how it affected one woman and her TV show. However, Elizabeth Dimon’s excellent performance certainly makes that woman a compelling one. 

I also wonder what might have been Loeb, the character with the most at stake, be the focal point of Ordinary Americans instead of Berg. In part, David Kwiat certainly created a compelling portrait of a man of integrity whose inability to restore his reputation eventually has chilling personal consequences; Loeb’s courtroom testimonial towards the play’s end was among its most memorable moments.

Berg is initially adamant that no one should dismiss Loeb and even allows her show to be canned rather than giving in to the network’s demands. Her seemingly unshakeable conviction gradually wears down when she finds that nobody in the TV world will give The Goldbergs a second chance.

As desperation gradually chips away at both Berg’s and Loeb’s ideals, the two performers eventually come to an unsatisfying compromise that turns out to be too little too late to allow Berg to recapture mainstream success. If professional exclusion and personal devastation are the cost of doing the right thing, is it any wonder, so many of us don’t?

Margery Lowe is a riot as Gertrude Berg’s bubbly and faithful friends Fannie, Rob Wahl, and Tom Lowe, each playing multiple roles, skillfully round out the cast. The show also had several strikingly quotable lines, like “money talks, but fear talks louder,” and, not to give too much away, the one that gives the play its title.

Because of Ordinary Americans’ events, The Goldbergs’ TV time slot was eventually filled by the white-bread I Love Lucy, a stark contrast to the conspicuously Jewish Goldbergs. If more diverse writers had been allowed to keep (or ever had a chance to grab) the mic, would today’s America be a place more accepting of immigrants and cultural diversity? 

At least Ordinary Americans succeed in restoring Berg’s voice and bringing good old Molly Goldberg back to life, if, lamentably, around seventy years later than if the world had been a fairer one.

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