“I am not an émigré, I am an exile,” playwright Bertolt Brecht insisted, and he proved his point by returning to Germany soon after the end of World War II. But many of his countrymen remained in America, finding a haven and founding an artistic community in the film industry of Hollywood. Their relationships and concerns during that time are explored in British playwright Christopher Hampton’s 1982 play “Tales From Hollywood,” now having a brilliant revival at L.A.’s Odyssey Theatre.
Hampton places Croatian novelist and playwright Odon von Horvath (Gregory Gifford Giles) at the center of the action to serve as a narrator, much like the omniscient Stage Manager in Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town.” Von Horvath, a character within the play, continually breaks the fourth wall to explain and expand on the comments of his fellow writers.
In actuality, Von Horvath died in 1938 in a freak accident in Paris. While walking along the Champs Elysees he got caught in a sudden rainstorm and took shelter with a group standing under a chestnut tree. The ferocity of the storm caused a nearby tree to collapse onto the chestnut tree, breaking off one of its branches, which struck Von Horvath on the back of his head, killing him instantly. Ironically, Von Horvath tells of this incident in the course of the play, describing it as having happened to a friend.
The other major players are the Mann brothers, Thomas and Heinrich (Kent Minault and Walter Beery). Heinrich, the older of the two, was a much respected novelist whose writings dealt with social themes and attacks on the increasingly authoritarian government in Germany. His most famous work was “The Blue Angel,” which, as a movie, gave Marlene Dietrich her start. His brother Thomas, however, eclipsed him when he won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1929. (This notoriety saved Thomas’ books from the infamous Nazi book-burning orgy, but Heinrich’s work was not so fortunate.)
Also present is Nelly Mann (Ursula Brooks), Heinrich’s vacuous, much-younger second wife, as well as the wives of Thomas (Meghan McConnell) and Bertolt Brecht (Niki Blumberg). Heinrich’s wife was Jewish, and the object of the group’s rampant anti-Semitism. They refer to her as “the kike” and Brecht expresses his opinion that “they (the Jews) deserve everything they get.” Thomas Mann also notes that dealing with a Jew is “like stubbing your toe on 3,000 years of history.”
Brecht hated Los Angeles, characterizing it as a city of “depraved cuteness,” and notes that one “has to write badly to be a successful screenwriter.” He also complains that the movie industry “keeps artists in cells padded with money” and is literally “a funeral parlor for the spirit.” And he comments that talking to a specific movie mogul is “like drowning in cold gravy.”
Minault and Beery, the actors portraying the Mann brothers, look startlingly alike and both adhere to the philosophy that “we’re visitors in this country, so it’s only polite to be circumspect.”
Amid all the political and artistic views expressed, one might lose track of director Michael Peretzian’s impressive staging and Tom Buderwitz’s creative set design. But the production qualities of this extremely engaging play are superb. And Adam Flemming’s ever-changing film projections provide a complementary silent addition to the action and make “Tales from Hollywood” a visual as well as an aural treat.
“Tales from Hollywood” will continue at the Odyssey Theatre, 2055 South Sepulveda Blvd. in Los Angeles, Wednesdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 7 p.m. through Dec. 19. For tickets, call (310) 477-2055.
Cynthia Citron can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.