“Screenwriter’s Daughter” a hit for Vineyard Playhouse

It’s nearly impossible to turn straightforward biographical material into effective theater. No matter how interesting the life of a playwright may be, a chronological blow-by-blow rarely provides the necessary conflict and resolution for good drama.

However, in “The Screenwriter’s Daughter,” The Vineyard Playhouse’s latest production, writer/director Larry Mollin has managed to devise a way to relate the stories of two all but forgotten historical characters, while still providing the audience with a compelling theater experience – an accomplishment that is appropriate considering that his subjects are two people whose careers were both centered around drama.

Mr. Mollin’s play, which is enjoying a world premiere here at the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School Performing Arts Center (PAC) through this weekend, is essentially a two-character study of playwright, author, and remarkably prolific screenwriter Ben Hecht, and his radical actress daughter Jenny, who made her mark in the turbulent 60s as part of the revolutionary avant garde theater troupe The Living Theater.

From the 1930s through the 50s, Mr. Hecht lent his talents to a staggering laundry list of iconic films, including “Gone With the Wind,” “Gunga Din,” and “Some Like it Hot.” As Jenny says at one point in the play, “From Hitchcock to the Marx Brothers, he wrote for the best.” However, according to Mr. Mollin’s script, Hecht had a habit of prioritizing fortune over fame, which relegated him to the ranks of the underappreciated in Hollywood lore. Unfortunately, his star was further dimmed by the smokescreen of pre-McCarthy era McCarthyism. Mr. Hecht became unpopular in Hollywood as an outspoken Jewish activist during the years surrounding World War II.

Jenny inherited her father’s radical spirit and social consciousness. However (in the play at least) by the time she had discovered her own passionate spirit of rebellion, her father, who was 50 when his daughter was born, had become jaded about political involvement.

In Mr. Mollin’s play, as Jenny prepares to embark on a trip to Europe with The Living Theater, her father tries desperately to dissuade her from getting too involved in the radical work of the company. At the heart of the play is an imagined scene between two headstrong characters duking it out, using their wit and passion as ammunition.

Says Ben’s character at one point, “There never was an uninhibited wench like Jenny, and I say that with all possible fatherly pride.” His dramatized persona is clearly torn between empathy with his daughter’s commitment and the concern of any anxious father watching his child tread dangerous waters. As the play’s Jenny says, “You’ll try to control me like one of the characters in your scripts,” but he’s clearly met his match in his headstrong daughter.

Ken Baltin as Ben turns in a stellar performance, playing Hecht as an intellectual Jewish New Yorker with just enough accent to be convincing but not cartoonish. Mr. Baltin has been given some great material to work with as Ben alternates between wisecracking (sometimes quoting his own material from films) to roaring in indignation, to pleading with his beloved daughter. He delivers his lines with the finesse of one of his characters (Hecht penned the play “The Front Page” and its screen adaptation “His Girl Friday,” whose characters famously deliver rapid fire, witty dialogue).

Although the character of Hecht could easily have fallen into a stereotype, Mr. Mollin has turned him into a multi-layered character, and Mr. Baltin delivers a fine, nuanced performance.

As Jenny, young actress Ella Dershowitz gets a great chance to prove her acting chops. Her character is brash, headstrong and, at times, crude as she rails against her father’s hypocrisy in opposing her inherited activism, but the audience gets the occasional glimpse of the little girl who is still worshipful of her daddy and proud of his accomplishments. The extremism that fueled Jenny and made her reputation eventually consumed her and we see some foreshadowing of her downfall.

The play’s Jenny is that rare bird — a strong female character. As a young woman torn between the love of her father and hatred of the values he represents, Ms. Dershowitz does an exemplary job.

The play makes good use of breaking of the fourth wall moments. At one point The Living Theater of the 60s virtually comes to life, interacting with the audience. The large crowd on opening night was riveted. Appropriately, considering the characters, the dialogue is full of wit and humor, as well as some strong messages about the social responsibility of artists.

The set works well on the huge PAC stage. It is a static set split between Hecht’s Upper East Side apartment and The Living Theater’s communal living space. The actors (including two auxiliary characters) float back and forth. Some scenes take place in real time and place, some dialogue is done as flashbacks or flashforwards. Three background projection panels are used effectively to alternately provide archival New York City backdrop scenes and photos and video of The Living Theater.

“The Screenwriter’s Daughter” is good entertainment – funny, touching, and innovatively staged, but more importantly it also manages to accomplish its writer’s primary objective – bringing two overlooked, yet influential, fascinating, and complicated characters into 21st-century public consciousness. The play’s wealth of biographical material makes one want to find out more about both Hecht and The Living Theater.

Enjoy the play and, by all means, dig deeper. There’s a lot more to this story than can be told in the play’s 90-minute running time.

“The Screenwriter’s Daughter,” July 12–14, 8 pm, M.V. Regional High School Performing Arts Center, Oak Bluffs. $35; $30 seniors (65+) and juniors (under 25). 508-687-2452; boxoffice@vineyardplayhouse.org.