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Tales of Hollywood

In LA, the land of constantly changing landscapes, excavating our ephemeral history produces the only tangible artifacts that Los Angeles possesses. In the scheme of Hollywood movies, however, there was one glorious chunk, the result of Hitler’s drive to exterminate artisans and thinkers from the Reich, that is frequently overlooked.  In the thirties, the immensely vain and insular film community sought to cannibalize the international reputations of newly arrived ex-patriots.  But when they were found wanting, the waters closed around them as if they had never lived here.

It remained for a writer from another culture to value this hidden past and serve it back to us.  Playwright Christopher Hampton, known for the play, Les Liaisons Dangereuses along with numerous screenplays, was intrigued by the fates of the German intellectuals who settled in Santa Monica during the Second World War. First produced in the late eighties, Tales of Hollywood focuses upon this group of world-famous men as they faced rejection and indifference in the movie capital of the world.

To channel the tale, Hampton employs a narrator, Ödön von Horváth (in perhaps the first case of identity theft ever recorded), a prolific German writer who escaped Germany, only to be killed in a freak accident.  Hampton transposes his identity and biography to bring the fictitious von Horváth to Hollywood in order to report on the difficulties of Heinrich and Thomas Mann, Bertolt Brecht and their wives. 

To illustrate the tale, Director Michael Peretzian has assembled an immensely talented and dedicated ensemble cast, from the pensive Gregory Gifford Giles as von Horváth, to Daniel Zacapa as the pain-in-the-neck, Brecht. The gaze settles very quickly on the travails of the Mann brothers, especially the elder brother Heinrich (sensitively played by Walter Berry) and his unmanageable young wife, Nelly (the iridescent Ursula Brooks). While Thomas (here performed by Kent Minault) enjoyed more fame in the U.S., Heinrich never lived up to his reputation as the author of von Sternberg’s Blue Angel.

The scenario features some outstanding cameos; notably Jeffrey Phillips as Art Nicely, Elizabeth Southard as Salka Viertel among an able cast of ensemble players.  But it is the image of Nelly, shimmering like a diamond set in a studded pendant, that captures our attention.  Ursula Brooks chillingly reveals her character’s desperation and hunger in a way that brings home the predicament of exiles cut off from their own culture.  They have no choice but to self-destruct, or like Brecht, escape after the war is over. After we have been living, as it were, with this group of exiles in their claustrophobic prison, it is safe to conclude with Sartre that hell is, indeed, other people.

Peretzian seamlessly navigates the complex set changes for us by employing some of Brecht’s favorite techniques.  He makes heavy use of his ensemble players to set the stage, provide living scenery, and jump into the action as required with perfect fluidity.  His work is greatly enhanced through the use of digital collages designed by Adam Flemming that facilitates a sense of history.  The streamlined setting focuses the action, while sound from Bill Froggatt and Ashley Portilla’s stylish period costumes complete the atmosphere.

Tales of Hollywood continues at The Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles 90025, Wednesday–Saturday at 8:00 P.M.; Sunday at 2:00 P.M.: with two more Wednesday performances on 10/27, 11/3 and 11/10 through December 19th at 7:00 P.M. Ticket prices from $25.00 (weekdays) to $30.00. For reservations phone (310) 477-2055 or www.odysseytheatre.com.