Theatre 40 is back this month for its thirteenth year of "The Manor," a real-life soap opera based on true events. Presented on location at Greystone Mansion in Beverly Hills, the production leads guests from room to room, loosely reenacting the grisly events that took place there in the 1920s and 30s. The location is beautiful, with perfectly manicured grounds and stunning views of Los Angeles. The history within the walls of the landmark mansion however, is laced with scandal, bribery, greed and death.
Playwright Katherine Bates wrote this story centered on the fictional MacAlister family. Many might see the correlation of her inspiration, the true history of the Doheny family, who made their fortune in oil in the '20s and constructed the actual mansion in the hills above the Sunset Strip.
Charles MacAlister makes bad business decisions with life-long friend senator Winston leaving them both in hot water with the law, facing criminal charges in a bribery scandal that ultimately destroys the families. At the same time, there is a love triangle brewing with son Sean MacAlister, his new bride Abby and life-long friend Gregory Pugh. As the tagline promises, "If it hadn't actually happened, Hollywood could not invent it."
The production is directed by Flora Plumb, who has more than 75 productions under her belt. You can see her experience in the form of her actors who grace the rooms of the mansion with a respect and admiration for their work that can be felt in their performance. There's a reason why "The Manor" surpassed its 200th performance last year and is still going strong.
The delightful servants of the mansion served as our narrators and house guides for the evening. Daniel Lench, Katherine Henryk and Esther Levy Richman played the butler, housekeeper and maid and made sure we all felt like welcomed house guests. We are, after all, simply visitors at the Manor and their hospitality was greatly appreciated.
The cast of "The Manor" were all superb, the show deals with real-life trauma and despair and there is a general regard for this truth in every performance.
Darby Hinton plays the head of the household Charles MacAlister, and to say that this man demands your attention on stage is an understatement. He delivered such an emotionally professional performance that dominated the rooms without having to utter a single word. He was mesmerizing, the true star of the night.
Bates plays his wife Marion and was an absolute delight to watch, both as a proud mother and later a crumbling parent experiencing the ultimate loss. Her integral part in this great production was not lost on this writer.
Our love triangle is made up of Sean and Abby MacAlister, portrayed by John-Paul Lavoisier and Annalee Scott, and Ben Gavin as the wrench in their gear, Gregory Pugh. While the chemistry between the married couple seemed to be a bit lacking from the get-go, my investment in this love story was lackluster. I recognized the role these three played in the history of Greystone Mansion but felt myself more involved in the business/bribery aspect of the show. A first for me.
Rounding out the cast was the delightful Cynthia Gravinese as wacky wife to Gregory. She's a foreigner, she's an actor and she's loud and obscene. She is just the beam of light "The Manor" needs to balance out the sorrow of the story.
The show runs for about three hours, with an early curtain call of 6 p.m. It's unfortunate that the sun sets so early in the evening because it takes away from the beauty of the grounds. I would love to go back during the day and explore the gardens. At the same time, the darkness is essential in building the ghostly atmosphere that the play demands.
I have to say that I enjoyed this show immensely. At times I felt like a voyeur, peeping in on someone's private moments and getting no enjoyment from it. I actually found myself blushing and looking away as the newlyweds shared a passionate moment in their bedroom. This is what I love about the theatre, the real and profound emotions it invokes. So spend an evening with the ghosts of Greystone Mansion, and bear witness to the tragedy that they so graciously recreate every evening.
"The Manor" plays through February 13 at Greystone Mansion, 905 Loma Vista Drive in Beverly Hills. For tickets or information, call 310-694-6118.