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Theater Review: "Hollywood"

Martin Meccouri, Shaun T. Evans, Katherine Ko, Scott Drummond and Lee Sellars
Photo credit:
Jim Carmody

“Hollywood,” Joe DiPietro’s latest play, calls itself a “noir thriller.” It has a lot of elements, some of them black or at least bleak, but not necessarily noir. 

At the base of the play is a factual mystery: somebody killed famous film director William Desmond Taylor with a shot to the back in 1922. Several possibilities are suggested during the play, but the evidence either disappeared or was so mishandled that an arrest never happened, and the case was closed 16 years later.

But by then, no less than 300 people had confessed, making this case more a murderer mob scene than a noir thriller.

Christopher Ashley directs the world premiere of “Hollywood” through June 12 at La Jolla Playhouse.

The Jazz Age 1920s were a time of bootleg hooch, bobbed hair, short skirts and those shameful dances. Taylor’s murder wasn’t the only shocking event; Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle was tried for the rape of an actress at about this time.

Clearly, morality was going to hell in a handbasket, so DiPietro brings us the character of Will Hays (Patrick Kerr), a “small-town boy from Indiana,” who will be responsible for the Hays Code, aka the Motion Picture Production Code.

Hays became Hollywood’s first morality czar, “overseeing film content” and deciding what could and couldn’t be said/seen/done onscreen. That code was in effect until 1967.

“Hollywood” gives us several other fairly stock ’20s characters, wonderfully dressed by costume designer Paul Tazewell.

Aside from Taylor (Scott Drummond), these include Hearst journalist Jimmy Dale (Matthew Amendt), ever in search of a lurid headline; Mabel Normand (Kate Rockwell), comedienne/ drug addict and sometime lover of Taylor; Mary Miles Minter (Talene Monahon), child star with a big crush on Taylor; Mary’s hovering stage mom Charlotte Selby (Harriet Harris); wannabe actress Dorothy Palmer (Caroline Siewert), and Taylor’s trusty servant Henry Peavey (Shaun T. Evans), who discovered Taylor’s lifeless body.

But by that time, Taylor’s friends had emptied his place of much of the evidence.

Wilson Chin’s set is versatile, with locations that move in and out and curtains at the back for the projections. The set itself could even be a speakeasy, with composer/pianist Wayne Barker onstage playing his own songs as the “investigation” takes place.

Lots of theatrical devices keep the eyes busy (even while the brain glazes over), such as Tara Knight’s terrific projection design with sensational headlines of the “Death Gun Sought!” and “Mary’s Initials on Forbidden Nightie!” ilk.

The actors are top-notch, and “Hollywood” looks good. It just needs to decide what it really wants to be. How about a musical about the 300 pretenders to the murder charge?

The details

“Hollywood” plays through June 12, 2016 at La Jolla Playhouse’s Mandell Weiss Theatre, 2910 La Jolla Village Drive (on the UCSD campus).

Tuesday and Wednesday at 7:30 pm; Thursday and Friday at 8 pm; Saturday at 2 and 8 pm; Sunday at 2 and 7 pm

Tickets: (858) 550-1010 or lajollaplayhouse.org