Reviewing Theatre For Over 40 Years
“The Manor” returns: Quasi-History in Beverly Hills
For 13 years, on a semi-regular basis, Theatre 40 has produced “The Manor,” based on, albeit fictionalized from, actual events which occurred at the play’s performance site: the Greystone Mansion in Beverly Hills. Written by Kathrine Bates, the play is founded in the tragedy which befell the Doheny family in the 1929, when the son of oil magnate Edward L. Doheny met a tragic end at the house his father had built for him and his bride.
In “The Manor,” Doheny becomes Charles MacAlister, a self-made mining magnate. We meet him at the height of the 20s, as he celebrates the marriage of his beloved son Sean to Abby, the daughter of his friend and legal consultant. Another guest at the wedding is a senator – a former fellow miner turned politician – with whom he chooses to make a deal that evening which will come back to haunt him. At the same time, Abby’s friend and former crush, Greg, and Greg’s rather garish wife are also introduced. Though all is rich, and most see the future as a brilliant thing, the groundwork for trouble is laid. In the second half, as the 30s begin, the dangers come home to roost.
The play takes the audience from room to room, not in the way that John Krizanc’s “Tamara” did in the 1980s – having different audience elements follow different parts of the storyline, which they’d share at various points to gradually tell the whole story – but by putting on each scene three times, and having the audience rotate in thirds so everyone sees the whole thing but in differing order. It is a formula which has worked over time, and certainly continues to do so under current director Flora Plumb.
Darby Hinton makes a gently commanding MacAlister – a man whose confidence comes in great measure from a strong sense of family and friendship. As his wife Marion, playwright Bates vibrates with loving and protective enthusiasm – obviously the glue which holds the household together at times. John-Paul Lavoisier, though his looks would seem more appropriate in a modern perfume ad than as the son and business partner of a 20s tycoon, does much to balance the sense of strength and business savvy with a gentle care and concern for his family and future. Annalee Scott rather neatly underplays Abby, leading to a sweetly realistic portrait which clicks better and better as the storyline grows.
Ben Gavin balances an stolid attractiveness with an awkwardness of class as the handyman Greg, while Cynthia Gravinese creates a significantly grating portrait of his grasping wife. Stephen Gustafson makes solid work of the MacAlister lawyer, though he’s not given a whole lot to do. Daniel Leslie, in an ill-fitting tuxedo, doesn’t seem very impressive as a US Senator, but handles his part with ease. Perhaps the best of the performers in the actual storyline is Melanie MacQueen, as the senator’s cool and long-suffering wife. The other really memorable performers are those who take the audience about the place – butler Daniel Lench, mute housemaid Esther Levy Richman, and most particularly housekeeper Katherine Henryk.
It is obvious that people love this thing, and one can see why. It is admittedly fascinating to see this tale play out on the stage where a similar drama actually did. This theatricality makes up for a sometimes artificial pacing, though the last half an hour is very strong and unified. The only completely unnecessary element is an allusion to the ghosts at the very end which – though it may simply be a way to get the entire cast back in the room for a curtain call – thins the sense of the “real,” replacing it with the corny.
Still, I cannot sniff at any piece of theater which inspires Los Angelinos to discover more about their own history. Indeed, the Doheny tale is a particularly colorful chapter.
On a practical level, the good news, at least in comparison with “Tamara”-like adventures, is the comparative lack of stair climbing and trailing over large expanses. The less than good news is the “light refreshment” offered at intermission. Don’t expect more than Doritos, packaged crackers, juice and water. Still, this is a singular event, which only takes place when the city of Beverly Hills has not scheduled other things in what is now a landmark and a museum of sorts.
What: “The Manor” When: Through February 13, 6 p.m. on January 22, 23, 29 and 30, and February 10 – 13 (all matinees were sold out by opening day) Where: Greystone Mansion, in Greystone Park, 905 Loma Vista Drive, above Sunset Blvd. in Beverly Hills How Much: $55 with tickets only available in advance Info: (310) 694-6118 or http://www.theatre40.org