Saturday, September 26, 2020

‘Ordinary Americans’ Chronicles Gertrude Berg, Pioneer of American Television Sitcom

Long-time actor with Palm Beach Dramaworks, Elizabeth Didon plays Gertrude Berg in this powerful drama. Berg was perhaps one of the most famous and powerful Jewish women in America and a star of American television's groundbreaking sitcom, "The Goldbergs."

Set against the backdrop of a 1950s television set, Palm Beach Dramaworks features the world premiere of Ordinary Americans by playwright Joseph McDonough. Despite its lesser running time, this play hurtles along in a breathless marathon for 90 minutes, which says something for a show that has a relentless attack on the tear ducts.

It’s not a coincidence that around October 20, 2017, Palm Beach Dramaworks’ Producing Artistic Director, William Hayes commissioned McDonough to write this play about the life of Gertrude Berg during the blacklist period in America. This came at a time that marked the 70th anniversary of the start of the notorious Red Scare when the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) went after Hollywood actors, screenwriters, musicians, directors, and producers, questioning several prominent witnesses, asking “Are you or have you ever been a member of the Communist party?”

The committee looked to find anyone under a rock with some kind of affiliation with the Communist party. And whether out of fear or patriotism, some witnesses gave the committee names. Overall, Hollywood blacklisted over 325 entertainers who the committee had not yet cleared. And one of those was Philip Loeb. A Broadway actor known for his role as Jake Goldberg in Berg’s 1948 play Me and Molly, Loeb went on to portray the same role when The Goldbergs was adapted for television.

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A long-time actor with Palm Beach Dramaworks, Elizabeth Didon plays Gertrude Berg in this powerful drama. Berg was no other than the queen of radio in the 1930s, and for the next two decades was perhaps the most famous and powerful Jewish woman in America. She wrote all her episodes and then when the rise of television happened in 1949-1950 when television stations were relatively new, she convinced the CBS Network to give her a shot at a television show called The Goldbergs, about a Jewish family in New York City.

Review: 'Ordinary Americans' a Perfect Chronicle of Gertrude Berg
Elizabeth Dimon and Rob Donohoe, Ordinary Americans by Joseph McDonough. (Photo by Alicia Donelan for Palm Beach Dramaworks)

Similar to many hit American sitcoms that would soon follow like I Love Lucy in the 50s, The Bing Crosby Show in the 60s, The Brady Bunch, Bewitched, All in the Family in the 70s, Happy Days in the 80s, and Friends in the 90s, to today’s renewed version of the sitcom platform, The Goldbergs—although not a comedy—revolved around the life and struggles of a middle-class Jewish family in New York City. Singlehandedly, Berg paved the way for the American television sitcom. But sadly, her run was shortened by the Red Scare.

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It is here where we first find her. In a restaurant in the middle of nowhere, trying to find her way back on the spotlight as the first female pioneer in television to own her sitcom. The story unfolds as Berg meets up with Fannie Merrill (Margery Lowe), her sidekick, her right hand, her everything, as she likes to describe her. Though times have changed, they still have hope that they can resurrect The Goldbergs, and their cast, including Eli Mintz (Rob Donohue) who plays “Uncle David,” and can get back to work on the set.

In a series of behind-the-scenes flashbacks, the audience gets introduced to The Goldbergs when they became number two in the country, second only to Milton Berle’s Show. Berg was the first woman to get an Emmy Award for Best Actress in a television show.

David Kwiatand Elizabeth Dimon, Ordinary Americans by Joseph McDonough. (Photo by Alicia Donelan for Palm Beach Dramaworks)

Berg became very wealthy, and very powerful, very quickly. So the fall came rather harshly when her costar, Philip Loeb (David Kwiat) gets blacklisted during the Red Scare period. She stands by his side because she thinks she’s untouchable. But nothing is farther from the truth, she quickly learns. Philip is in trouble, and so is her show.

Like an ordinary Jane Doe, Berg is called to CBS President, Frank Stanton’s (Tom Wahl) office. He gives her an ultimatum: fire Loeb or The Goldbergs is canceled. She thinks is a bluff, but he affirms it’s not. And not too long after the end of their visit, I Love Lucy can be heard on the air, marking a new era of American television sitcom, with Lucille Ball on the helm. Interestingly enough, I Love Lucy is about a middle-class housewife in New York City. And that’s how the Network wanted it to be—about an ordinary American in the city.

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CBS ran I Love Lucy for seven years, with a total of 180 half-hour episodes spanning six seasons. The show starred Ball with her real-life husband Desi Arnaz, Vivian Vance, and William Frawley. Though the show ran until 1960, the re-runs aired for decades and was known worldwide. Not too many people today know about Gertrude Berg or can recall a show called The Goldbergs.

Towards the end of the play, we see Berg resigned to go to any extremes to help her friend get removed from the blacklist. She goes to see Francis Cardinal Spellman, who was the most powerful Catholic in the country and a friend of Senator Joseph McCarthy. The bishop and the senator were anti-communist, anti-union, and both had little regard for the First Amendment. And in a sad sequence of events, Berg loses her fight, and Loeb takes his own life.

To say that this play is poking in a raw wound, it’s painting it lightly with slight strokes. McDonough’s mastery of dialogue reveals the sins committed long ago that we deem so un-Constitutional, so un-American.

If you visit, ‘Ordinary Americans’ is playing at Palm Beach Dramaworks until January 5, 2020. To buy tickets and for information on showtimes, go to www.palmbeachdramaworks.com.

‘Ordinary Americans’ Chronicles the Notorious Red Scare Saga

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