Tales from Hollywood at the Guthrie Theater

September 22, 2012
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Lee Sellars (Ödön von Horváth) in the Guthrie Theater’s production of Tales from Hollywood, by Christopher Hampton. Directed by Ethan McSweeny, set design by Lee Savage, costume design by Andrea Lauer and lighting design by Robert Wierzel. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

The Guthrie Theater’s 50th season begins with “A Celebration of Christopher Hampton” and Hampton’s play, Tales from Hollywood, a canny “what if” that follows the fortunes of  writers forced out of Europe prior to WW II by the Nazi’s mounting violence and threats. The lives of Ödön von Horváth, an Eastern European playwright and novelist, brothers and writers Thomas and Heinrich Mann and the more-famous still, Bertolt Brecht, are intertwined via this shared circumstance, although they couldn’t be more different. (Horváth was killed in Paris in 1938 when a tree branch fell on his head during a sudden storm. In this play, however, it was not Horvath who was killed, but a young man standing next to him.)

They all end up in Hollywood, where the booming film business puts just about any writer on contract, whether they are fluent in English or not. It’s a strange place for the exiles, as Brecht calls the group, but Horváth likes the bizarre, the plastic, the “half-done,” so he loves Hollywood, a trait worth multiple jokes.

Brecht, however, declares “I really hate it here,” and berates Horváth for his “disgusting passivity.” Horváth, unruffled, suggests they respect each other’s differences, to which Brecht replies, “You can respect my differences if you like. I despise yours.” It’s the kind of outrageous talk that generates most of the laughs in this mostly dark comedy. Stephen Yoakam plays the rumpled, cigar-toting Brecht with abandon. Every time he steps on stage, it belongs to him completely. He is wonderful!

Lee Sellers as Horváth is smooth but cool in his dual role of narrator and character in the story. Horváth isn’t the most talented among them, the smartest, the richest, the most famous, or even the one who cares the most. About anything. He has scruples, yes, and he carries a secret, too, but even that is not as much of a bombshell as we might expect, given that it’s the last reveal. Things just disintegrate, rather than blow up. How does one sustain a play this long with this type of character: slick, but lacking salt? He’s a guy who sort of lucked out and allows himself to be sucked into the Hollywood scene, because it suits him. Rather than a lead, he’s more of a foil for everybody else.

Bob Davis as Thomas Mann plays the pompous ass to perfection. Keir Dullea plays Heinrich with such finesse that he has us heart and soul, but even we would not be likely to cast our lot with this brother.

Allison Daugherty as Heinrich’s much younger wife, Nelly, delights with her irreverence, loose mouth and dangerous independence. But this is only setup for her haunting scene in Act II that confirms the tragedy that is her life, and that we have felt all along. I wish it had been pure monologue. The character, and particularly Daugherty playing it brilliantly, needed nothing more than Horvath’s silent presence on the stage.

Although the play is not about Nazi atrocities, it is about the anguish the characters feel, in different degrees, for just surviving it when others did not. It’s also about outsiders and insiders, the appreciated and not, love that doesn’t make sense, the tangle of motivations at cross purposes, coming to terms with the past and finding (or not) a place in the present. This creates a richly complex narrative.

Happily, we are not hit over the head with these lofty questions; rather, they unfold slowly at a pace that feels more like real time. What a pleasure to be allowed to discover it all in nuance, like turning the pages of a good novel. In fact, it might actually as satisfying to read, particularly without the obnoxious buzzer that I presume signals the beginning and ending of a take on the set of the movie we are watching – and as we watch being filmed. If this is the point, doesn’t one have to be familiar with a movie set from that period to understand its purpose?

Yes, it is a smart script with intriguing subtexts. Given the denouement, however, one has to puzzle over the “comedy” label, in spite of the acidic humor and many laughs. It makes for an interesting night of theater, but its branding seems slightly askew.

Tales from Hollywood runs through October 27.

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