As a critic of the live stage, I usually make it a point to comment upon the sets. For example, in my review of Theatre 40’s recent production of John Morogiello’s The Consul, The Tramp and America’s Sweetheart, I noted that the location where the onstage action takes place - actress/movie mogul Mary Pickford’s (Melanie Chartoff) Hollywood office at the United Artists Studio - was “well-rendered by set designer Jeff G. Rack.”
At their best, a set serves as background that imbues a drama, comedy or opera with ambiance, and can even become a sort of character in a show. It can be said that in playwright Kathrine Bates’ The Manor the set reaches its highest, ultimate expression - even though nobody receives billing as the set designer. Nevertheless, what makes The Manor such an exceptional theatrical experience is that it does not take place in a playhouse per se, such as the Reuben Cordova Theatre on the campus of Beverly Hills High School, where Theatre 40 offerings are usually presented. Rather, The Manor is quite realistically being staged at the Tudor Revival Greystone Mansion atop a Beverly Hills crest, where the sordid events that inspired this crime drama actually happened. Call it the Bates hotel. (Perhaps the “set designer” credit should be bestowed upon Greystone’s architect, Gordon Kaufmann?)
Truth be told, if it wasn’t for this stroke of genius and this play was executed on a conventional stage in a typical theater, Bates’ fictionalization of the sensational, tragic events that transpired in the 1920s would probably be rather run-of-the-mill, a garden variety “the butler did it” whodunit. But watching the scandals and crimes that ensnared the family of oil moneybags Edward Doheny unfold where the real life tragedy the drama is based upon did almost 90 years ago is extraordinarily unique and riveting. Actors costumed as servants lead audience members from room to room and even up a flight of stairs at one point. It’s all a bit like watching Hamlet performed at Elsinore Castle in Denmark.
At the start of the almost three hour play with one intermission, a thesp announces that the characters’ “names have been changed to protect the guilty” (and, perchance, the dramatist from possible legal entanglements?). Ipso facto, the Dohenys become the MacAlisters, with Darby Hinton (who played Fess Parker’s son on the 1960s Daniel Boone TV series!) portraying patriarch Charles MacAlister, a self-made millionaire. (The 2007 film There Will Be Blood - an adaptation of Upton Sinclair’s novel Oil! - is believed to also be based on Doheny and the movie’s bowling alley scene was shot at Greystone Mansion.)
MacAlister is lured into a dubious deal by Sen. Alfred Winston. Daniel Leslie is perfect as the cloying, self-serving politician with his hand out who in reality was Interior Secretary Albert Bacon Fall - as his name indicates, he was a real pig. Although for some strange reason I don’t recall it being mentioned in the dialogue, this troubled transaction was part of the Teapot Dome Scandal that rocked Warren G. Harding’s presidency.
The Manor returns for a limited run (this is actually its 15th season) at a most opportune moment. As Trump-olini and his would-be cabinet of gazillionaires prepare to assume power and usher in a new Golden Age of Conflicts of Interest and a High Renaissance of Self-Dealing, the corrupt practices Bates reminds us of are quite timely. (What’s next? Will Trump-olini, who won’t disclose his business interests in Russia, appoint Boris and Natasha the heads of the CIA and NSA and make Fearless Leader the Director of National Intelligence?)
BTW, the illicit arrangement the capitalist and the politician entered into on- and offstage involved Naval Station Pearl Harbor - which came as news to me, co-author of Pearl Harbor in the Movies. I found it very interesting to learn that Pearl Harbor was part of the Teapot Dome Scandal, which was the biggest presidential impropriety before Watergate (and Trump-olini took - and I mean “took” - office).
It’s interesting to note how Pearl Harbor became a U.S. base: In the 1870s, pretending to be a tourist, Major General John McALLISTER (!) Schofield scoped out the terrain in the then-independent Kingdom of Hawaii and identified Pearl Harbor as an ideal port for U.S. forces. Obtaining Pearl Harbor became a key reason for the American-backed 1893 overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy and annexation of the islands. Schofield’s name was given to the Oahu barracks that were attacked by Imperial Japan 75 years ago on Dec. 7, 1941. Today, as Oliver Stone’s Snowden reveals, Washington maintains a vast military and intelligence presence at Hawaii, and the Native Hawaiians remain a pawn in the realpolitik superpowers play that has its origins in spying and shady Teapot Dome scandals.
Meanwhile, back at the review:
As they spin their web, The Manor’s actors (some of whom alternate in their roles with other thesps) acquit themselves well. Abby MacAlister (on opening night she was portrayed by Annalee Scott; in the playbill Shelby Kocee and Shelby Graham also play the part) is particularly affecting as a virginal bride on her wedding night, both eager and anxious to consummate her marriage. As the MacAlister’s scion Sean (Shawn Savage, who recently depicted Germany’s L.A. diplomat Georg Gyssling in The Consul, The Tramp and America’s Sweetheart) is likewise nervous due to the impending nuptials. As Abby’s jilted lover (the handyman is too lowly of birth to wed Abby, according to her father Frank, played by Martin Thompson, who is the MacAlisters’ attorney) Gregory Pugh (in reality, named Hugh Plunket), Caleb Slavens is a slave to nerves, perpetually jumpy and agitated by his pushy, flapper wife Henrietta (Sarah van der Pol).
The script actually has a strong subtext regarding sexual dysfunction, along with the political and fiscal fiascoes. At the premiere of this run, playwright Bates - who also has heaps of acting, as well as writing credits - played Marion MacAlister, who is alternately being depicted by Carol Potter. The story also makes some salient points about motherhood - and being a step-mother. The scene where she confides in the senator’s wife, Cora Winston (Melanie MacQueen), was very tender at the debut of this return engagement.
In all but one of the Greystone’s rooms where the audiences are led there are seats for ticket buyers to comfortably watch the spectacle unravel on. Members of the aud are often divided by groups and simultaneously taken to different rooms where the same scenes are enacted for different viewers by various actors. It gives the notion of “parallel time” - editing techniques D.W. Griffith developed during the early days of silent cinema - a new meaning.
As novel as the concept is of setting the drama in the mansion where the actions that inspired it actually transpired, spectators are only taken to about four or five of the 46,000 square foot estate’s 55 rooms, and truth be told, I wanted to see more of Greystone, which is now part of an 18 or so acre public park owned by the City of Beverly Hills. Buying a ticket to see The Manor is one of the few ways one can gain admittance to this mansion, where Bruce Wayne and Alfred would feel right at home.
Overall, mystery fans will especially enjoy this play, well-directed by Flora Plumb, rendered in a most spectacular fashion at its real life setting.
Theatre 40 is presenting The Manor at 6:00 p.m. on Jan. 6, 11, 12, 13, 18, 19, 20, 25, 26, 27 with weekend matinees at 1:00 p.m. on Jan. 8, 14, 21, 22, 28 and 29 at Greystone Mansion, in Greystone Park, 905 Loma Vista Drive (above Sunset Blvd.), Beverly Hills, CA 90210. Free parking onsite. For info: (310)364-3606; www.theatre40.org.
L.A.-based reviewer Ed Rampell co-authored "The Hawaii Movie and Television Book" (see: http://hawaiimtvbook.weebly.com/).