Regional Reviews: San Diego
It's a sturdy, entertaining, mystery set in the heyday of silent filmmaking and in the early days of the Hays Code, which limited how commercial filmmakers would tell their stories.
Mr. DiPietro's story is one that the Hays Code would have forbiddena tale of fantasy and reality that takes place in a hothouse where sex, drugs, and politics provide a backdrop for getting away with murder.
William Desmond Taylor (Scott Drummond) came to Hollywood to be a movie star and ended up behind the camera as a popular director. He was particularly good with women performers, though it was rumored that he slept with them during and between projects. The two most popular women with whom Taylor worked were Mabel Normand (Kate Rockwell) and Mary Miles Minter (Talene Monahon). Minter was a child star who was still playing a child at age 19. Her career was closely overseen by her protective mother Charlotte Shelby (Harriet Harris).
Taylor is murdered in Hollywood's opening scenes, shot in the back by an unknown assailant. The District Attorney (Jeff Marlow) authorizes an investigation, which reveals that there is no end of suspects. In fact, Taylor reappears multiple times to play out how he might have been killed by a variety of them. The press gets involved, in the form of Hearst Corporation journalist Jimmy Dale (Matthew Amendt), who continually stirs the pot, resulting in sensational headlines. His efforts are a huge success: in a short period of time, more than three hundred people confessed to the murder.
Into the fray also walks Will Hays (Patrick Kerr), a self-described small-town boy from Indiana, who has ties to the Republican establishment in Washington, D.C. Hays has tapped into deep-seated fears of the morality of Hollywood, fears driven by the kinds of press coverage that Dale produces. To mid-America, Hollywood is a mixed blessing, providing entertainment, both on the screen and in newspapers, but also purveying questionable standards of morality. In an attempt to mollify critics, producers such as Charles Eyton (Lee Sellars) have brought in Hays to speak on behalf of this more conservative audience.
Hays will eventually put into effect a code that would last until 1967. He also developed great power over the careers of actors, directors, and screenwriters.
In Hollywood, Hays becomes fascinated with the murder as emblematic of the kind of scandal he wanted to quell. he connects himself to the investigation, playing a kind of "aw, shucks" Lt. Columbo character, showing up at suspects' homes with his own sets of questions. No conclusions are ever drawn, however, and the case was officially closed more than fifteen years after the murder was committed.
Mr. DiPietro works with a large palette that includes composer Wayne Barker accompanying the action from an on-stage piano. Artistic Director Christopher Ashley has mounted a production to match from a top-notch creative team: scenic designer Wilson Chin, costume designer Paul Tazewell, lighting designer Howell Binkley, sound designer Chris Luessmann, and especially, projection designer Tara Knight, who seamlessly merges silent film with live action.
The result is fast paced and sometimes a bit confusing as to who is who. Eventually, the characters become recognizable and Will Hays (Kerr) and Charlotte Shelby (Harris) emerge from the pack as the chief behind-the-scenes string-pullers. A likely suspect emerges as well, and a final scene, set many years later, implies that the likely suspect was, indeed, the killer. But, there's been so much "what's real and what's not" leading up to that scene that one walks away in some doubt. Perhaps that was Mr. DiPietro's intent, but I would have opted for a more conclusive ending.
Nevertheless, there's plenty of red meat on these bones. The production runs through June 12.
Hollywood, through June 12, 2016 Tuesday and Wednesday at 7:30, Thursday through Saturday at 8, and Sunday at 7, with matinees Saturday and Sunday at 2, at the Mandell Weiss Theatre, 2910 La Jolla Village Drive, on the campus of the University of California, San Diego. Tickets are available by calling (858) 550-1010 or visiting www.lajollaplayhouse.org.
Also featuring Jacob Bruce, Shaun T. Evans, Katherine Ko, Martin Meccouri, Caroline Siewert, and Terrance White.