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Theater Review: Garden of Alla

Romy Nordlinger in Garden of Alla. Photo by Lorca Peress.

The Brown Derby is commemorated on Wilshire Boulevard by Brown Derby Plaza, a nothing-special mini-mall that replaced the iconic restaurant decades ago. But no trace remains of the Garden of Alla, once at 8152 Sunset Boulevard. The razing of that sprawling paradise, a mansion and later hotel and villas, was the inspiration for Joni Mitchell’s line about paving paradise. (The 2.5-acre site was later home to a modernist Lytton Savings Bank and some other nothing-special buildings, themselves razed in 2021 to make room for a mixed-use development designed by Frank Gehry…which now may never happen.)

The property’s owner in the 1920s was Alla Nazimova, a star of stage and (silent) screen. Romy Nordlinger portrays her in a well-crafted and engaging solo show, Garden of Alla, that she also wrote. Over the course of a tight 80 minutes, Nordlinger brings to life this self-made Russian and her extraordinary life in Moscow, New York and Hollywood. As Nazimova, she directs her own action, calling out, “Cut to…” to change the subject.

Romy Nordlinger in Garden of Alla. Photo by David Wayne Fox.

After a jarring video montage that hints at Nazimova’s achievements and disappointments, Nordlinger makes her entrance. Her bearing, speech and lavish outfit make her every inch the 1920s star. Her modern attitudes, though, are right at home in the 2020s, since Nazimova was undeniably ahead of her time.

She invites the audience to join her in the mansion, her “eternal home.” She says, “It’s a thin line from where you are to where I am, just beyond the veil.” Yes, to answer a question she poses, a good story can resurrect the dead.

How has the world forgotten Nazimova, who played Hedda Gabler on Broadway and Camille on film, the highest-paid actress of her day and inspiration to some of the 20th century’s greatest playwrights? Perhaps because her self-funded Salomé was a flop, perhaps because she lived a life out of the closet, as part of a “sewing circle” that convened at the Garden of Alla. Nazimova was vilified as a sexual deviant and ended her days in a single room at the Garden of Allah Hotel (renamed by its new owners in 1930).

Well-curated and -designed video projections by Adam Jesse Burns and an evocative soundscape incorporating original music, by Nick T. Moore, match the high quality of the script. Lorca Peress directs with a light touch: Nazimova is a diva, but never goes over the top. Together, the sights, sounds and Nordlinger’s controlled acting transport us a century back in time and a few miles to the south of Theatre West.

Nordlinger may be alone onstage, but her energy and the show never lag. The fascinating facts—including a fair amount of name dropping—keep coming. Early on in the show, Nazimova notes, “Life is not a tragedy, it’s a force and we may as well laugh at the punch line,” adding, “an artist is only dead when the last person to remember them dies.” If that is so, she will be around for a long time, thanks to this homage.

Alla Nazimova’s star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Garden of Alla plays at Theatre West through July 23, with performances on Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. A screening of Nazimova’s Camille follows the July 15th show. Tickets are $35 with online advance purchase, or $40 at the door; they can be purchased here. The theater is located at 3333 Cahuenga Blvd. West.

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Laura Foti Cohen
Laura Foti Cohen
Laura Foti Cohen has lived in the Brookside neighborhood since 1993. She works as a freelance writer, editor and consultant. She's also a playwright affiliated with Theatre West.

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