By Mukul Khurana
In 1922 a popular Hollywood director was murdered. His name was William Desmond Taylor. Most of us don’t recognize that name, but his murder ushered in a new era—the Hays Era.
The Hays Production Code changed the way business was done in Hollywood—what could be shown or not shown. Except, Taylor’s murder did not directly usher in the Hays Era. That’s known as “artistic license” and has happened since time immemorial.
Be that as it may, Hollywood written by Joe DiPietro and directed by Christopher Ashley is a smart and sexy “Theater Noir” with a true story at its core. Besides the murder, the play delves into censorship issues and morality. What was Hollywood about and what is it now?
If Hollywood reflects us, what can be said about us as the audience? One thing is certain. Our thirst for celebrity gossip is insatiable. All the new television shows and blogs on the Internet devoted to gossip are the natural progression of the “gossip rags” of yesteryear. It has been said before that “The more things change, the more they remain the same.” And yet, there are differences…
For instance, “Talkies” were in their infancy (1913 to 1922 were not that apart in terms of years). Intertitles still meant something to people in the early part of the 20th century. Christopher Ashley (Artistic director) explains the background philosophy behind the play: “Working on Hollywood, the design team and I were afforded the opportunity to take a deep dive into the history of silent film. We looked at the technology of early 20th century moving picture cameras and saw how light and speed shaped the images on the screen. We explored how the use of intertitles moved the storytelling forward and learned that live music accompanied each film showing, all of which we’ve incorporated into our production. In crafting the show’s design, our greatest challenge was to have theatre meet film, and to develop a vocabulary that serves both.”
And you thought it was “only” a play.
When this much effort goes into a production, the audience is absorbing things on so many levels and sometimes it doesn’t even know when it is happening. Wilson Chin (Scenic designer) played a big role in this evolution. Paul Tazewell (Costume Designer) got the feel of the 20s across perfectly. The lighting by Howell Binkley (Lighting Designer) captured something of the times too. Likewise, Chris Luessmann (Sound Designer) made sure that the sounds were authentic to the “Roaring 20s.” Because of the intersection of silent film, “talkies,” film, and theatre, the role of Tara Knight (Projection Designer) was elevated beyond the normal.
Movies continue to be one of America’s most important exports. As “hard power” wanes, it is worth remembering that “soft power” comes from art and culture. Hollywood is powerful for that reason.
Film defines us as no other medium. We take our cues from the unspoken language of film. And then, there are the similarities… In the 20s (a few years after WWI), there were major divisions in America. On the one hand, there were conservatives like Hays who were convinced that America was on the wrong path: religion-fueled their desire for a purer nation. On the other hand, there were the libertarians who believed they had the right to pursue any path to happiness—that no one could censor the content of what they consumed culturally.
Sounds a lot like today, right? The more things change, the more things remain the same. Americans couldn’t make up their mind at that time (and we can’t seem to be able to do it now).
Despite all the talk about sex, depravity, and censorship, there was only one scene in the play where breasts were bared (briefly). And yet, overheard was the following comment: “Did they really have to show breasts? There was no reason for such blatant and provocative sexuality…”
Culturally and politically, we wrestle with the same issues now as we did then. In our town, we just hosted Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. Enough said… The play itself featured the superb acting of Patrick Kerr (Will Hays) and Harriet Harris (Charlotte Shelby) of Frasier fame. Kerr played Hays and was also the narrator… Harris was the over-ambitious mother we have all come to expect in show business. Kate Rockwell as Mabel Normand and Talene Monahon as Mary Miles Minter were the two women in the life of William Desmond Taylor (Scott Drummond). The whole cast deserves to be mentioned as they all delivered flawless performances.
If anything negative could be said about the play, it would have to be that it was too slick (and the pacing was a little too fast). However, maybe that was intentional as movies ran at that speed at the time (and doesn’t slickness pretty much define Hollywood)?
This is a tight performance worthy of anyone who loves theater and film. It runs from May 10 – June 12. Catch it at the La Jolla Playhouse before it ends.