Nigel Reed's Red-Letter Day As 'Trumbo'

By Jane Horwitz
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Actor Nigel Reed passed up one infamous role and one classical role -- the Marquis de Sade in "Marat/Sade" for Forum Theatre and Agamemnon in "The Oresteia" for Constellation Theatre -- so he could spend months prepping for a huge part as blacklisted Hollywood screenwriter Dalton Trumbo at Rep Stage in Columbia.

"It's not very often you get a part that is so verbally rich and so wonderfully argumentative," Reed says of the text in "Trumbo: Red, White and Blacklisted." The show, created by Trumbo's son Christopher, runs through Sunday.

Reed isn't alone onstage. Jonathan Watkins, as Christopher, is the narrator. But the role of the elder Trumbo is daunting. Reed knew he needed extra time, even though he had become a quick study during his earlier career acting in soaps. "Let me tell you, those skills certainly go downhill as the years go by," the 54-year-old actor admits with a laugh.

The play is culled from the writer's witty, scathing, erudite letters, mostly from the 1940s, '50s and '60s, when he was blacklisted in Hollywood for his Communist Party affiliations. Among the films Trumbo wrote, some of them under a nom de plume and for which he didn't get credit until much later, were "Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo," "Lonely Are the Brave," "Spartacus," "Exodus," "Papillon" and "Johnny Got His Gun" (from his novel).

In the play's 2003 New York incarnation, Nathan Lane and others played Trumbo while holding a script, as in a staged reading. But Reed and director Steven Carpenter wanted to make it more of a play.

Reed started to memorize the part in March so that when rehearsals began in July he was able to lay the script down and get to the heart of "a fascinating American" who could also be "a real son of a gun."

"The audience had to feel that as the words emerged from this character, that they instantly came from the heart, the soul. They couldn't be belabored," says the actor. Reed cites "the wonderfully rich logic, meandering logic," of Trumbo's letters and agrees they sound rather like George Bernard Shaw in high dudgeon.

The play doesn't apologize for or explain Trumbo's politics, but it celebrates his refusal to back down to government and studio pressure. Reed notes "how relevant it all is to today. At the base of this whole thing is a discussion of our First Amendment rights."

Trumbo, who was imprisoned for refusing to name names before the House Un-American Activities Committee, was willing to "be away from his family for almost a year . . . because of his principles," says Reed. "This is a man who was tested."

Warehouse Update

It's looking as though the rough-and-ready Warehouse venue on Seventh Street NW, longtime home for experimental theater and art shows, will remain open through the end of the year.

When the city raised property taxes by 400 percent on the Ruppert family's 12,000 square feet of historic storefront buildings across from the Washington Convention Center, mother and son co-owners Paul Ruppert and Molly Ruppert decided to sell. They expected a settlement in August. But "Because of the credit crunch, that settlement has been postponed," says Paul Ruppert. "We're going to continue to present works here in the meantime." The last-minute extension means programming the spaces fully will be tough, however.

In cooperation with a new nonprofit arts services organization called City Artistic Partnerships, Ruppert has booked a return engagement by a popular Fringe festival show, David Gaines's "7 (x 1) Samurai," Oct. 16-Nov. 2. A reading of A. Peter Bailey's play about civil rights figures Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr. and Medgar Evers, "Malcolm, Martin, Medgar," will be presented Saturday at 6 p.m. Ruppert says the Warehouse will also participate in Foto Week DC, Nov. 15-22, and he'll revive the Warehouse's open-mike cabaret nights with the Cabaret Network.

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