Looking down over the city at night from Beverly Hills feels like a dream. The lights seem to go on forever, twinkling, moving, shifting, with the dark night sky illuminated from the city. Standing at the railing of Greystone Mansion, it’s interesting to think about what people would have seen from this vantage point when Los Angeles was coming into its own.
Theatre 40, the Beverly Hills Community Services Department, and Ben and Ruth Marandy present a rare opportunity to experience a glimpse into this past with their production of The Manor- Murder and Madness at Greystone, a play written by Katherine Bates and performed in the halls of the Greystone Mansion, where the historical events of the story actually occurred.
The Greystone Mansion rests above Sunset Blvd. and may not be the easiest to find if you haven’t been before. A few more signs would easily remedy that problem; as you are driving into the park, you may see a sign saying that the park is closed. Simply drive around the gate and the signs because the show you are going to see is the private event the park is closed for. Once you arrive, there are quite a few steps down to get to the actual location and a decent amount of walking and movement throughout the play, so be prepared to get some exercise here. Be sure to call ahead if you need any accommodations or have a hard time with stairs.
The view coming down the stairs is already mesmerizing, but the actual mansion is a real treat. It feels a bit empty at times without pictures covering the walls, but the rooms are large with unique architectural flourishes. If you are a fan of Hollywood, it’s also fun to walk along paths and down the stairs that have been featured in films like There Will Be Blood ( also loosely based on the story of oil tycoon Edward Doheny, who had the mansion built for his son), Spider-Man, Rush Hour, and the list goes on. The play, which might be more accurately described as a “historical re-imagining,” tells a very slanted tale of the Doheny family and their fall from grace. The names are changed, but the basic historical details remain mostly intact.
I say “historical re-imagining” rather than a traditionally structured play because it doesn’t particularly function that way in terms of story. It is an immersive theatre experience in which the audience enters a large sitting room where we are introduced to the characters and given instructions. The audience is then divided into three groups and led from room to room to experience scenes in separate rooms simultaneously.
Each group is led by one of the charismatic servants, who helps to set up each scene and has a small role in the story as well. This fly-on-the-wall approach mostly works and allows for a unique experience of getting to be present in the rooms, soak in the history, the corruption, and the obscene wealth. It works best when it’s like watching ghosts. There’s a novelty that, with a more self-aware or updated story, could be something truly special. Unfortunately, the story is hollow and empty, and you’re not likely to have much to discuss about it after.
The play paints the McAlister (Doheny) family like they were patriots or heroes, while even a cursory look into the actual history reveals many more interesting details that could have been utilized to update the story or at least tell a less rose-colored version. Whether you wanted to go from the corruption angle or the rumors of the queer love between the son and his best friend, either would have made a more interesting choice. Instead, it plays out more like a daytime soap, except all the evil characters are replaced by well-meaning do-gooders that earned their money “fair and square” and were the victims of other vindictive businessmen and the government. It feels that the playwright’s goal was to share their story from the McAlisters’ perspective, forgetting that there is a danger in only telling one side to a story. Because history is, as we know, written by the winners, we lose an element to the story that may be just as truthful, if not more so. The story becomes flattened and loses the human elements needed for a compelling theatre production.
Despite the lack of depth or meaning from the play, there’s still a lot to enjoy, and it is worth the trip. The performances are generally strong. Darby Hinton as Charles McAlister, the head of the family, captures that bravado and good-natured father exceptionally well, and Eric Keitel as Gregory Pugh does an outstanding job of descending into drink and depression as he lives with the woman he truly loves, but can never be with, Abby McAlister (Nathalie Rudolph). Rudolph also gives a standout performance here, especially her intimate bedroom scenes.
The characters felt immersed in the scenes as if we weren’t even there. There were some occasional blocking issues, particularly with the climax on the stairs. It’s a neat location, but if you don’t pick the right seat you might miss a good chunk of the action, or get a prop gun pointed in your direction. This leads into one major element that Theatre 40 needs to consider: there should be a trigger warning attached to this play about suicide/self-harm as well as a prop gun being pointed directly at the audience. While there was a warning in the opening comment about the sound, this warning did not cover all of this and really should have, for the emotional and physical well-being of all audience members.
These are all elements that could be easily handled and fixed in the future. There’s a chance this might be the last year of the performance, so I would still recommend going if you have the opportunity. I can say that the show made me want to look into the history of the mansion and the family, which truly leads to more questions than answers. It brings up an interesting mystery for those that love historical unknowns they may never be solved. It is also fascinating to try to understand why the playwright chose certain elements of the story over others to include.
Overall, the novelty of being in the space, watching some strong performances, and getting a chance to look out over the twinkling city, makes this worth the venture.
The Manor-Murder and Madness at Greystone is showing Thursday and Friday Evenings 6 pm on January 26th, February 1st and 2nd, and Saturday and Sunday at 1:00 pm on January 27th and 28th at Greystone Mansion, 905 Loma Vista Drive in Beverly Hills. Tickets are $75 and can be purchased here: www.theatre40.org