The fascination with Hollywood transcends genres; countless books, TV shows, films and even stage productions assay the star making machinery. The latest such production is on offer at the venerable La Jolla Playhouse (itself founded in 1947 by film stars Gregory Peck, Dorothy McGuire, and Mel Ferrer).
With its eponymous title, “Hollywood” is based on the true unsolved murder of William Desmond Taylor. The actor / director was found dead in 1922, and the play explores the variety of characters sufficiently motivated to commit the crime.
The play cleverly uses filmic techniques, most notably title cards from black and white silent films, to turn the spotlight on significant plot points.
But in tandem with the unfolding murder investigation, the play also exposes the broader themes of morality, religious stridency and self-censorship. Thankfully no one erroneously raises the flag of the First Amendment, but the wisdom of the studios’ desire to self-regulate is questioned. Although the studios would have far better success in addressing legislators’ moral harangues in the 1960s (we are all familiar with the MPAA ratings system), in 1922 the idea was to bring in a former Postmaster General as a studio watchdog.
As portrayed in “Hollywood” Will Hays is just an ‘aw shucks’ mid Westerner who inexorably broadens his influence across the film production process. Hays, admirably played by Patrick Kerr, opens the play by immediately breaking the fourth wall. By relying on a seemingly mythical Aunt Sally back home, Hays constantly points out how the majority of Americans don’t cotton to the direction Hollywood is headed.
Taylor, the soon-to-be-dead director, is successfully played by Scott Drummond. The interplay between Drummond and Kerr is sharp, no doubt due to their prior work together on the same stage. A clutch of female characters represent the range of personalities inhabiting Hollywood: Talene Monahan plays the semi-virginal ingénue Mary Miles Minter beloved by America, Harriet Harris plays her overbearing mother Charlotte Shelby and Kate Rockwell plays journeyman actress Mabel Normand.
The Rashomon-like retelling of the murder scene maintains the suspense, and the role of the tabloid newspaper headlines (projected between the silent film clips) foretells today’s TMZ-obsessed journalism.
The role of the the justice system in Los Angeles is also questioned, probably better for the studios if the sordid details of the murder are filed away in a cold case. Jeff Marlow takes on his role of District Attorney Woolwine with vigor.
Joe diPietro’s script solidly fleshes out the characters, and strikes the right balance between solving the murder mystery and illuminating the influence of morality on the creative process. Not explored deeply, but always simmering below the surface, is that Hollywood exists to make money and if the customers aren’t satisfied they won’t buy tickets.
Director Christopher Ashley commands the action and keeps the action from getting bogged down in unnecessary diversions.
When the Hays Code ruled Hollywood, almost all edginess was trimmed by the studios. “Hollywood” explores how this decades-long system was born. Had it been possible, it would have been intriguing to provide a bit more background to Will Hays; before coming to Hollywood he was at the murky center of the Teapot Dome Scandal that befuddled the Republican Party.