Boilermakers & Martinis: Review

by Anthony Chase

One could argue that Boilermakers & Martinis is not theater at all, for in this autobiographical evening, Emanuel Fried portrays himself as he narrates his own double life as working-class union activist (boilermakers) and society husband (martinis). And yet there is, in the process of storytelling, the inevitable selection and condensation of detail that we associate with fiction. Certain events are highlighted, while others are undoubtedly left out or modified, intentionally or not, by memory, loyalty or emotion. Ultimately, our lives are unknowable, even to ourselves.

What we receive, over the course of this intriguing performance at the Road Less Traveled Theatre, is the weaving of the myth of Manny Fried, with one foot firmly planted in fact and the other in the subjectivity of reminiscence. When the story has been told, certain truths have been revealed and certain mysteries linger. I found the experience entirely captivating.

While Manny himself is decidedly the hero of his own life, finding the antagonist is more elusive. He begins his narrative by repeating a question that was once put to him, "Looking back, is there anything he would have done differently?" The question turns out to be the torment of his life, for certain decisions in his past left those he cared about vulnerable to suffering that he never intended.

Manny's story is well-known locally. A working-class Jewish boy from Buffalo's East Side, in 1941 he married Rhoda Lurie of the socially prominent family who owned the Park Lane. She thought she was marrying an aspiring actor. What she got was a rising union activist who was on the FBI's red list during the McCarthy era. Unable to thwart Manny's union activities directly, the FBI sought to undermine him by going after his wife and daughters.

In Manny's telling of this real-life drama, the role of villain is assigned and reassigned repeatedly. Sometimes the villain is smug but ethically bankrupt neighbors or weak and frightened relations. Sometimes it is the press. Sometimes Manny himself is the destructive force; sometimes it is his wife, Rhoda. Always, however, there is the hand of the government, making life a nightmare for the Fried family. Agents visited all their neighbors. They found their daughters dropped from carpools and children's parties. Close friends and even relatives turned on them.

Establishing the FBI as the overarching super-villain would seem to resolve the issue and absolve everyone of guilt, but it does not. In Fried's tale, as the government pushes the lines further, isolating the Fried family, the dilemma is reconfigured. New challenges emerge. Should Manny cave in to the FBI and cease his union activity for the sake of his family? And when he does not, should Rhoda stand by his side, watching everything else that is important to her slip away, or should she take her children and salvage the world she knows by divorcing him?

In the end, the couple cling to each other and weather the storm in a kind of tortured co-habitation that even they, we learn, never entirely understood. Everyone suffers, husband, wife and children, but none more, suggests Manny, than Rhoda. While this retrospective realization disturbs him, the idea of giving in to those who forced this hell upon them disturbs him even more. When he presses the issue, Manny arrives at the ersatz Latin aphorism of the World War II era, "Don't let the bastards grind you down!" This, he suggests, in tentative yet forceful fashion, is the lesson of his life.

At 94, Manny Fried endures. He has lost Rhoda and he has seen the factories he helped organize close, one by one. For most Buffalonians, the idea of the Red Scare seems remote and otherworldly. The idea of a time when Buffalo socialites drank and dined at the Park Lane seems like a storybook. And yet, this story resonates with undeniable relevance made all the more powerful by the fact that Manny himself is here to tell it.

Some of the personalities from Manny's story are still in town and judiciously (or kindly) he does not name certain names. No matter. Those whose deeds have been condemned by history have become irrelevant. How did it help them to turn on their neighbor, except to lend them a certain ephemeral sense of superiority or access to power?

By the same token, how much has changed, really? At a time when we learn that the outgoing Attorney General approved the unconstitutional wiretapping of thousands of ordinary Americans and we hear that the Lackawanna Six, languishing in prison, may never have posed a threat of any kind, we can reasonably ask, "Who are today's communists?" Today, as we see UAW workers go out on strike for benefits we thought were negotiated generations ago, we ask ourselves, "Why is this an issue at all? Why is there no national healthcare? Why do we still leave workers vulnerable to the greed of the powerful?"

We look to our elders for the wisdom that comes from experience. Manny Fried feels at a loss to find much deliberate wisdom. Instead, he offers us his life story. He lays out this history methodically, deliberately and with minimal affect. He shares the events. He shares the inner conflicts. Ultimately, he leaves us to decide for ourselves.

©2007 Anthony Chase

SOURCE: Chase, Anthony. "Boilermakers & Martinis: Review", Artvoice (Buffalo, NY), September 27, 2007.

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Uploaded 2 November 2007
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