“The Manor” is one of the very few productions in Southern California, or any other market for that matter, that has not only succeeded in winning over sold-out audiences, but in doing so for not just one or two, but 17 years. Suffice it to say, the murder play, which is scheduled through January 27th, is unlike any other standard production. It takes place at Beverly Hills’ historic and sprawling 1928-built Greystone (or Doheny) Mansion, and via its charming house servants (played by Daniel Lench, Katherine Henryk, and Esther Richman), chaperoned audience members track the proceedings in three assigned groups – from the immense living room, to the parlor, study, bedroom, and to the famous staircase – as clues are uncovered, and a total immersion sets in. While some may experience the events in a slightly different order, the gist remains the same leading up to the suspense-filled, climactic finale.
The joint production between Theatre 40 and the City of Beverly Hills’ Community Services Department is written by Kathrine Bates, whose words capture a flair for engrossing drama and even humor. “The Manor” is also directed with canny precision by Martin Thompson (who also stars as Frank Parsons, Esq.), and is produced with an in-depth vision thanks to David Hunt Stafford. The creative team has tightly woven a kinetic narrative highlighting a living history, where, through the vicarious means of its audience, the characters become as real as the vaulted ceilings, antique picture frames, and outstretched walls. Only the names have been changed to represent the true, harrowing mystery surrounding the Doheny family, which saw an unspeakable murder-suicide engulf it on February 16, 1929 at the Greystone Mansion.
In the story of “The Manor,” the mining-and-oil-moneyed Dohenys are precisely and rivetingly reimagined as the MacAlister Clan, who, upon being introduced as floating phantoms, are revivified and transported back to a date in the 1920s where a joyful wedding is taking place. The MacAlister patriarch, Charles MacAlister (Darby Hinton) and his second wife Marion (Carol Potter), along with Senator Alfred Winston (Daniel Leslie) and his wife Cora (Melanie MacQueen) are celebrating the marriage between the MacAlisters’ son, Sean (Eric Keitel), and his amor, Abby (Annalee Scott). Abby’s father, attorney Frank Parsons (Martin Thompson) is also present, as is Abby’s down-and-out old flame, Gregory Pugh (Mikel Parraga-Wills), now a handyman for the MacAlisters. By the end of the scene, we discover that the 46,000-square-foot and 55-room Greystone Mansion is a wedding gift to Sean and his bride. This would mark the happiest everyone is before a grippingly gloomy fate imbues the cavernous hallways.
The characters’ relationships and intriguing motivations become more and more substantive, leading to a scandal that germinates when Charles MacAlister and Senator Winston make a pact so that the former would help fund a naval base in Hawaii in exchange for the latter granting exclusive mining rights in New Mexico’s “Ojos Negros.” In addition, a seemingly innocuous $100,000 personal loan delivered in cash to Senator Winston by Sean as well as Gregory — who just takes the opportunity to get away from his manipulative wife Henrietta (Kira Brannlund) – puts the plot into a catastrophic overdrive, whereupon, ten years later in Act II, the aftermath of a political scandal threatens the reputation and legacy of the MacAlisters. It should be noted that the fictionalized impropriety refers in actuality to the Teapot Dome scandal of President Warren Harding’s administration, which ruined many lives in its wake, including that of the Dohenys.
“The Manor” wouldn’t feel as palpable as it does if not for the seamless performances of its cast members. They don’t miss a single step in drawing in the eyes of their visitors, who become absorbed by the unfolding of this devastating tale. Daniel Lench’s James, the butler, is the first character we see. He has an endearing nature about him as the narrator who helps segue the events from one development to another. As the mute maid, Ellie, Esther Richman is tremendous at simply using her body language and gestures to communicate delight, caution, and heartache. And as Ursula, the housekeeper, Katherine Henryk is sweet-natured and sympathetically genuine in her portrayal.
Darby Hinton, who has portrayed Charles MacAlister since the play’s inception, is a throwback to the classic male Hollywood star, à la Burt Reynolds. In the role, Hinton is powerful, graceful, and dutifully in charge as the stalwart family protector, who is supported by the steady lawful hand of Martin Thompson’s Parsons. Daniel Leslie has also been a staple of “The Manor” for all 17 years, and his Senator Winston is a string-pulling and smooth-talking dealmaker who has a knack for making very attractive business pitches. Both Hinton and Leslie have layered their characters wonderfully and are especially compelling in their scenes together.
Carol Potter is Marion MacAlister, who became Charles’ wife under unseemly circumstances. Nevertheless, Marion is a dignified woman who knows her worth as the well-embraced and loving matriarch. Potter offers a fervent authenticity to her lines that ring with an emphatic poignancy. Melanie MacQueen, too, is impressively naturalistic as Cora Winston, who has no illusions about her politically ambitious husband (MacQueen and Leslie are also married in real life).
Furthermore, Eric Keitel gives a subtly nuanced performance as the exuberant Sean who becomes weathered by time and gains a perspective that shines a light on what is a growing suspicion regarding his wife. Annalee Scott expertly captures the naiveté of Abby, who, despite her innocent and loyal intentions, is weighed down by an inescapable dilemma.
Mikel Parraga-Wills is electric as the flask-swilling Gregory Pugh, whose festering depression and disassociation with sanity swell blisteringly. Much of Pugh’s angst results from missing out on the love of his life, Abby, and instead being married to the conniving and opportunistic Henrietta, who is superbly depicted with a charismatic mischievousness by United Kingdom-native, Kira Brannlund.
Definitively speaking, “The Manor” is the quintessential play on the calamity that befell the Doheny Family so many moons ago. With several moving parts and a landmark site in the Greystone Mansion that cannot be duplicated anywhere else, visitors can expect the unexpected, when the foregone outcome of history repeats itself in dramatically entertaining fashion. The scent of mahogany, the endless space, the top-of-the-world views, and the sheer commitment by the theatrical players involved lend themselves to an exhilarating and unique experience.