An ostensibly joyous wedding party opening in Medias Res; circa 1920s America; the declaration of a 47,000 Square foot Beverly Hills Mansion boasting 55 rooms bestowed to the newly merry married couple; A grand piano laden with wedding gifts from the likes of Mary Pickford, Charlie Chaplin, and Fatty Arbuckle; the entertainment of guests who gifted the couple with their actual presence featuring not only an unscrupulous politician, but the underprivileged crush of the bride’s youth, along with his conniving show girl of a wife: What in tarnation could go wrong…? So opens Theatre 40’s (in association with the City of Beverly Hills Community Services Department) annual production of The Manor by Kathrine Bates performed at—well–Beverly Hill’s sprawling and venerable Greystone Mansion.
Set in the self-same house as the original, albeit fictionalized version of the story, the actors take us room to room in hopes of untying what once comprised a complicated and harrowing knot in the tapestry that encompasses Los Angeles’ early twentieth century past.
“Inspired by true events in the history of Greystone Mansion” as proposed by the paper guide stone that is our program (but as rumor has it, centering around the real life Doheny’s aka the fictionalized MacAlisters) the audience is led room to room, divided into three color coded groups, that of: yellow, red and green by Ellie the maid, Ursula the Housekeeper and James the Butler.
In short, it is as though we are the stagehands changing ourselves, and our vantage point, to fit the intense story’s unfoldment (minus the all black ensemble switched out for colors of the all-American traffic light – the three house staff members making up for it simultaneously by way of their own darkly uniformed raiment).
Aside from scenes performed in the living room, to which all in attendance are concurrently privy, the offshoot acts are witnessed in non-chronologically organized shifts affecting the narrative flow not a wit! While one group (the yellow ostensibly?) is afforded a peek into the newly wed bride’s bedroom; her passionate perseverance swiftly halted at the hands of maternal-in-law-ish propriety a la “Seriously? There are party guests on the premises, can’t you kids hold off until they leave you—and your 55 room house– to your privacy?”, the other, perhaps the red group, seated in the study, frustratedly delights in witnessing more political corruption (in a fictionalized depiction of the Teapot Dome Scandal) than we care to be reminded of, pending present day machinations, betwixt family patriarch Charles MacAlister of MacAlister Industries and the money grubbing senator Alfred Winston.
Pending intermission; after ten years have passed between the roaring twenties to the depressed thirties, political/financial justice-to-injustice rears its contentious head culminating in a lawsuit involving the MacAlister/Winston business deal. A love triangle-inspired murder/suicide also bubbles up to the surface towards the end of the second act to at least two or three gunshots which is also always fun, particularly after being reminded that the country was going to Hell in a corporately compromised, environmentally degraded Hand/waste-basket–even back then!!!
Aside from the upset, the story itself is positively penetrating, if not suspenseful, rendered slightly more smooth and palatable by our three gracious hosts/tour guides: Ursula played by a sweet and hospitable Katherine Henryk, Ellie, portrayed by an equally adorable, but widely ocularly expressive (as she is mute) Esther Levy Richman, and James brought to us by a friendly, yet commanding, and no-nonsense David Hunt Stafford. (Not of course that James seems any less welcoming, just that one gets the sense that he would have led the revolt on the Battleship Potemkin suffering not a wit of indigestion from all the rancid meat served, inciting such rebellion. Plus, he is kind of the Artistic/Managing Director of Theatre 40, hence the additional subliminal trait pending his command.)
Concerning the denizens of the house over which James wields dominion, Charles MacAlister played by Mark Rimer is patently paternal which renders his political chicanery all the more distressing, but all par for his character driven course! – (Of course!). Carol Potter as Charles’ wife Marion MacAlister runs the gamut of emotions and commits to each and every one, and, in so doing, brings not only a smile to your face, but a sorrowful tear to your eye. (Best known for her role as Cindy Walsh on the classic and wonderful Beverly Hills 90210, such diversity in role playing is a singularly beautiful thing to see!)
The couple’s son, Sean MacAlister played by Eric Keitel is collectively earnest, likeable, and enterprising in his portrayal (and from certain angles somewhat resembles a very young Desi Arnaz – oh yes, yes just a little). Abby MacAlister played by Nathalie Rudolph is sincere, heartfelt, and lovely. Gregory Pugh aka Abby’s childhood friend but also the “one that got away” but not so far away that at least one of them isn’t driven positively crazy by the awkward situationship (and only by way of his ostensibly “undesirable” lower class status) is played most harrowingly and tear-inducingly by Mikel Parraga-Wills. Kristin Towers-Rowles as Pugh’s plotting wife Henrietta Havesham Pugh, is just as stunning as she is conniving.
Frank Parsons Esq (Abby’s paternal protector and the one responsible for keeping Gregory away from his daughter – possibly messing up Greg’s life forever – Yeah thanks dad) is played ironically in most likeable, and sophisticated fashion by Daniel Lench. Another equally likeable, but arcanely corrupt Daniel-as-dramatic persona, in the form of Daniel Leslie plays the scheming Senator Alfred Winston. Melanie McQueen sporting a last name most widely associated with the 1950s, looks like she stepped directly out of the 1920s and 30s not only by the way she portrays the Senator’s wife Cora, but also by the manner in which she carries and comports herself in the period costumes: Believable to the core – Cora’s core!!!
Direction by Martin Thompson is seamless, and set design/dressing by David Hunt Stafford (the butler himself aka Jack/James of all trades it seems) and Jackie Petras (Jackie of all trades) really make you feel like you’ve gone through a time warp. The chess set in the study alone is a thing of beauty with which to be reckoned.
While not a PG-13 rating per se, much of this play still isn’t for the faint of heart. That said, and not to worry, if things get too unnerving, simply look out across the landscape of the mansion’s panoramic tableau, down to the glamorous L.A. grid, and reflect upon the reason you moved here in the first place. Then turn your head back to the scene in question and (if at all a showbiz person) let it all sink in as a supplement to the “why”.
All in all, an evening of suspense, scandal, and scenic beauty.