Reminiscent of the environmental theatre piece TAMARA that held forth in the early eighties at The American Legion Lodge in Hollywood, THE MANOR by Katherine Bates and directed by Flora Plumb invites the audience to return to the days of flappers and the ultra rich in the elegant setting of the old Doheny mansion: Greystone in Beverly Hills. Director Flora Plumb revives this Theatre Forty tradition for the 14th year affording the audience to experience how the other half lived (unless you are ultra rich, then none of this will be a surprise!) Remnants of the Jerry Lewis film The Disorderly Orderly are, thankfully, mostly gone now. Lewis had the interior of the mansion painted in “mental hospital green” which remained even after a ‘clean up’ in the ornate carvings for years. The flamboyant Grand Entry and ornate interior will be familiar from dozens of movies and television shows that have used the mansion as a location many times. This is a terrific undertaking and the old adage of the director ‘directing traffic’ is literally a part of the production. Flawless and unique!
The saga of the Doheny family and the gothic tale of murder/suicide continues to be somewhat of a mystery in Ms Bates’ expansive script. As with TAMARA, our sixty member audience was divided into groups of about twenty who become virtual flies on the walls of the historic mansion to witness the unfolding tragedy. Mansion guides, Ursula, the Housekeeper (wonderful Katherine Henryk), Ellie, the mute maid (adorable Esther Levy Richman) and crispy Daniel Lench as the ever efficient James, butler who addresses us as Ladies and Gentle… men… keep the tours organized and coordinated as we are led from room to room to hear the history of the MacAlisters.
The Living Room / Minstral Gallery is an amazing space with vaulted ceiling and a gallery where guests might peer over into it for performances. This is the only actual room where we were all together at the same time. It’s a wedding in 1928 of Charles MacAlister’s son, Sean (bodice ripper handsome Jean-Paul Lavoisier) who has just been married to MacAlister’s attorney’s daughter, Abby (dark and luscious Shelby Kocee). Darby Hinton as Charles is perfectly modulated as the shanty Irishman made good. Exposition presents the story of the MacAlister Family’s fall from grace and introduces us to all of the players. It is certainly a soap opera; slightly Gothic in scope. The tour of the mansion alone is worth the price of admission.
Theatre 40 is celebrating its Golden Anniversary: Fifty years of producing mostly at their tiny space shared with Beverly Hills High School. The work is not always professional in a traditional sense, but has always been thoughtful and heartfelt. This show in its fourteenth turn at Greystone is a magnificent tribute to what can happen when you take a chance. The story of the Dohenys rise to power, forever preserved in the mansion and the grounds now administered by Beverly Hills Parks is fascinating. The family insisted that if the story was told, that the family name would not be used, thus Doheny’s oil strike and subsequent wealth has been changed by Ms Bates to MacAlister’s mining operations. The shady deal that brought Doheny to heel in the Teapot Dome Scandal has been well converted to reflect the times and the rich, rich, rich family.
The wedding party introduces all of the players before we head off into the interior of the mansion to discover jealousy, scandal and tragedy. Unlike being confined to a theatre seat for two or more hours, the audience is almost constantly on the move. Finding front row seats becomes a challenge, as the rooms have no rake leaving some sight lines difficult for those in the back rows. Flora Plumb’s direction, however, is aware of the challenges and with the exception of being taken out of the play by over acting from time to time it flows like honey. Daniel Leslie as the corrupt Washington Senator Alfred Winston forgets that his audience is literally five feet away and though bombast is certainly a huge part of his character, being shouted down becomes more of a problem than an asset to the work. In contrast, Melanie McQueen, as his wife, Cora Winston, in her final confrontation with Marion MacAlister (playwright Katherine Bates) is subdued to a perfect “T.” Bates portrayal of Marion comes with the intimacy that creating the piece must bring. Not only is she well intended as the story unfolds, but also adds ambiance with actually playing the concert grand in the living room.
Over all, it’s the Mansion that is the real ‘star’ of this production with the players as the seasoning that add to the gravitas of the tragedy. In the true story of the Doheny’s and the deaths that occurred in the home, we are never sure how it all went down. Bates’ play leaves no question, as the entire sixty members of the audience witness the dramatic climax. The dénouement is revealed back in the Living Room as the tragic characters repeat their initial entrances and the story ends.
Bring comfortable shoes and be prepared to experience the theatre in an intimate and personal way. Remember that the front row is where the good seats are and come prepared for an unforgettable evening with the rich and notorious. Applause to Ms Bates and Ms Plumb for an experience that should not be missed. Applause.
THE MANOR by Katherine Bates
Directed by Flora Plumb
Directed by Flora Plumb
Through February 5, 2016
All performances at 6PM
January 22, 26, 27 and 29
February 1, 2, 3, and 5.
Greystone Mansion (in Greystone Park)
905 Loma Vista Drive
Beverly Hills, CA 90210
Reservations: 310 694 6118