Reviewed by Marc Wheeler
Now in its 14th year with over 200 performances under its belt, The Manor at Theatre 40 is back. Taking place at Greystone Mansion in the hills of Beverly, this site-specific theatrical piece is a fictionalized account of the infamous Doheny family — now the MacAlisters — whose oil-rich opulence in the 1920s took a downward spiral when headline-making scandals forever altered their lives.
Directed by Flora Plumb, Kathrine Bates’ The Manor is inspired by true events that continue to haunt the Doheny Mansion (the true star of the show) nearly 90 years later. Sprawling 46,000 square feet over 16 acres of land, this humble giant was the most expensive home in California in 1928 with its $4 million price tag.
Audience members are encouraged to arrive early to roam the premises, Greystone’s well-kept gardens providing a beautiful perch over the city. The play takes place inside the home, often closed to the public, where theater goers are divided into three groups and escorted through five or six of its 55 rooms by a housekeeper, butler or maid. Everyone sees every scene, though in different orders, as performers go back and forth between rooms repeating the action for each incoming group.
The success of The Manor is due in part to its local importance. Seeing the action play out in the very place the events transpired gives this immersive crime-drama its chilling charm. At the same time, the script’s expository dialogue, especially in the first act, makes for one-dimensional characters that don’t fully come to life until after intermission.
Playwright Kathrine Bates and Melanie MacQueen’s second act confrontation between two high-society wives is layered with pathos, their desperation and fury contained in a quietude emblematic of womanly strength. Daniel Leslie as Senator Alfred Winston is a delight as a thick-accented politician whose over-the-top charms are stereotypically slippery. And Annalee Scott as the love-torn bride shines brightest when the script moves past mere commentary and reveals her character’s depth. On the flip side, Caleb Slavens’ portrayal of a friend-of-the-family weakens over the course of the show, his descent into insanity becoming increasingly one-note, exaggerated and ultimately unbelievable.
The Manor is produced by Kathrine Bates and David Hunt Stafford, and presented by Theatre 40 of Beverly Hills in association with The City of Beverly Hills.
Theories still abound as to what actually happened inside Greystone’s walls those many years ago. Enough puzzle pieces exist, however, to create an engaging story of flappers, politicians and wealth-hunting socialites. It’s all Prohibition-era cocktails and ragtime — until the music stops. For fly-on-the-wall theater, take a visit to The Manor. Despite its often on-the-nose presentation, it’s ultimately a fascinating examination of a notorious Tinseltown tragedy.
Running Time: 3 hours (including one intermission)
Greystone Mansion (in Greystone Park)
905 Loma Vista Drive, Beverly Hills, CA 90210