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Theater review: ‘Tales From Hollywood’ at the Odyssey Theatre

October 21, 2010 |  3:30 pm

IMG_6633Bertolt Brecht, Heinrich and Thomas Mann, and their expatriate literary cohorts may have chalked up a hit or two in Europe, but did they have what it takes to make it in Tinseltown? The story of how talented writers fleeing Hitler’s Third Reich were scooped up by movie studios and put to work grinding out hack screenplays supplies rich ironies, absurdist comedy and poignant drama in the Odyssey Theatre revival of Christopher Hampton’s “Tales From Hollywood.”

In an L.A. homecoming of sorts (the play was originally commissioned by Center Theatre Group in 1982), Michael Peretzian’s fine staging illuminates the signature erudition and eloquence with which Hampton weaves historical threads into a compelling story. Here, he employs as narrator a fictionalized incarnation of Hungarian playwright-novelist Ödön von Horváth (Gregory Gifford Giles), whose prescient insights into culture and the rise of fascism would have made him a perfect commentator on the plight of artists-in-exile in Hollywood (the real Horváth was killed in a freak accident in 1938 and never made it to America, but Giles’ nuanced performance invests his theatrical afterlife with humor and intelligence).

Equally vivid characterizations define the other historical principals. Daniel Zacapa’s masterful cigar-chomping Brecht bristles with social outrage even as he grovels for scraps from the capitalist studio system. Kent Minault’s Thomas Mann is an amusingly pompous windbag; his successful assimilation sharply contrasts with the heartbreaking failures of his equally gifted elder brother, Heinrich (Walter Beery), who wrote the novel on which “The Blue Angel” was based and ended up living it with his tragically adrift bar girl bride (Ursula Brooks).  Although familiarity with these personalities will help appreciate the show’s witty meta-theatrical allusions (from Brecht’s epic theater techniques to “Sunset Boulevard”), its dramatic punch lies in good storytelling on an intimate, human scale.  

Horváth’s corruption by a milieu that both horrifies and fascinates him pits jaded European sensibilities against the dark side of American innocence. As his story ends in the ’50s with the ideological purges of the McCarthy era, the objects glimpsed in his historical rear-view mirror may be closer than they appear.

–- Philip Brandes

“Tales From Hollywood,” Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, variable times Wednesdays and Sundays (check theater schedule). Ends Dec. 19. $25-$30, pay-what-you-can Oct. 21 and 22, Nov. 14 and Dec. 17. (310) 477-2055 or www.odysseytheatre.com. Running time: 2 hours, 35 minutes.

Photo: Gregory Gifford Gates, Hannah Cowley (in background) and Daniel Zacapa. Credit: Enci.

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