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STAGE REVIEW

Trumbo works better on page than on stage

You might have known that Dalton Trumbo was a first-class screenwriter of movies such as "Spartacus" and "Exodus."

You also might have known that he refused to name names during the red scare, was blacklisted, and went to prison.

Perhaps you didn't know that he wrote a letter to his son about the joys and guilt of masturbation.

Brian Dennehy's recitation of that letter, coming toward the end of "Trumbo: Red, White & Blacklisted," is a nice surprise in terms of how it lightens the mood of the piece. It shouldn't be all that surprising, though, because the Dalton Trumbo we meet here is totally infatuated with himself -- his words, his politics, his everything.

Most artists, of course, are not lacking a big ego. It might actually be part of the job description. But when they are the subject of a theatrical tribute, they'd better have something more to show for themselves than Trumbo does, at least in this play.

Trumbo's son, Christopher, is also a writer, and he put this together as a tribute to a man who was probably not the easiest dad in the world, despite his openness to everything from communism to onanism. Christopher is represented onstage by William Zielinski, who plays a variety of other roles as well.

But the show belongs to Dennehy, who played him in New York, rotating with Richard Dreyfuss, Alec Baldwin, Nathan Lane, Ed Harris, Tim Robbins, and Chris Cooper. The format consists of Zielinski filling us in on the history of Trumbo's turbulent adult life and Dennehy reading from his letters and speeches, which he does with appropriate gusto. It's "Love Letters" minus the love. Director Peter Askin and set designer Loy Arcenas project an appealing assortment of backdrops, from libraries to films of the House Un-American Activities Committee proceedings (with Richard Nixon lurking in the background).

Christopher is a dutiful son, making clear how brave an act it was for his father to take the political stand he did while others were naming names and selling out. And he isn't afraid to show the downside of his father's contentiousness.

Trumbo's letters are witty and cutting, certainly, but they make for awfully dry theater. We're not dealing with a Mark Twain, after all, whose words have sustained Hal Holbrook all these years. As Trumbo rails against sellouts, school administrators, or life among the Mexicans, he comes across more as a pompous blowhard than a political artist who can inspire us still.

Dennehy's size might work against him here. Trumbo doesn't live up to the larger-than-life figure Dennehy cuts, even while sitting down. More likely, though, it's the play itself that fails to make Trumbo a rich enough person on whom to spend this much attention.

It is tempting to see the play's forces of darkness -- HUAC, which tried to make him rat on his colleagues, and McCarthyism -- as a plague that continues today with such examples as PBS caving to the Bush administration on "Postcards From Buster." But "Trumbo" seems stuck in time, self-important to the point of bloviation. Even his one attempt to make peace with the political center and right, in which he blames everyone for McCarthyism, seems to come out of a personal need to pontificate.

Dalton Trumbo was a fine writer, but his son's tribute makes it too obvious that the best place for his father's words is on-screen and on the page.

Ed Siegel can be reached at siegel@globe.com.

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