REVIEW: Starstruck & Struck Down: Murder & Mayhem with "Hollywood"

Because This is Hollywood

Kate Rockwell as Mabel Normand and Scott Drummond as William Desmond Taylor

Photos by Jim Carmody of La Jolla Playhouse

It's a noir whodunit about one of the greatest unsolved mysteries in 1922 Hollywood, but the mystery of who killed director William Desmond Taylor isn't of import. In truth, La Jolla Playhouse's world premiere of Hollywood deals more in the grit and scandalous struggle of the 1920s than in true-blue detective work. Though the murder is "solved" by play's end, Hollywood feels less like a CSI murder mystery and more like a companion to Bob Fosse's Chicago: at the end of the day, the truth doesn't really matter. That's show-biz, and that's Hollywood.

Written by Tony Award-winning playwright Joe DiPietroHollywood follows moral do-gooder Will Hays (Patrick Kerr) in the aftermath of William Desmond Taylor's (Scott Drummond) shocking murder. Faced with an array of colorful characters who exude debauchery and immoral values, the pious Hays puts the pressure on the police to find the murderer among the Hollywood elite--whether or not the killer truly lurks in the world of moving pictures.

William Desmond Taylor

Suspects to the murder abound, from the disturbingly childish Mary Miles Minter (Talene Monahon) to her shrewd and calculating mother Charlotte Shelby (Harriet Harris). Though Monahon's nasally character perhaps pushes the envelope on how annoying a character can be, she brings a childlike innocence to her scenes. Harris, a La Jolla Playhouse veteran, gives an amazing performance, turning Charlotte Shelby into the strongest character within the production through her emotional scenes with Hays.

Also suspect in the case is Mabel Normand (Kate Rockwell), William Desmond Taylor's quasi-lover. Hardened and broken with a glimmer of hope in her eyes, Mabel oscillates between pushing others away and clinging to those around her in desperation.

Other powerful players in this production include the jaded and corrupt studio producer Charles Eyton (Lee Sellars), the rather insane wannabe Dorothy Palmer (Caroline Siewert), William Desmond Taylor's outspoken valet Henry Peavey (Shaun T. Evans), the bought-and-paid-for DA Woolwine (Jeff Marlow), an eyewitness of questionable morality in Faith Maclean (Katherine Ko), and the audacious and crude reporter Jimmy Dale (Matthew Amendt). As the characters crisscross and interact, the question of who killed William Desmond Taylor becomes less and less important--and perhaps that's okay. Hollywood thrives not through trying to solve the murder, but through pressuring the characters into questioning everyone around them.

Mabel Normand

La Jolla Playhouse's Christopher Ashley directs this production, and he does it well. From flawlessly rapid set and scene changes (with sets designed by Wilson Chin) to the accompaniment of live music by pianist Wayne Barker throughout the show, Ashley's production creates a deliciously antiquated setting. Paul Tazewell's costumes are absolutely gorgeous, with leading ladies Kate Rockwell and Talene Monahon in stunningly detailed gowns. The production offers brilliant, flashy lighting reminiscent of old movies, as designed by Howell Binkley. Add to that the use of silent movie projections as designed by Tara Knight, and Hollywood creates an atmosphere right out of a silent 1920s film.

So who killed William Desmond Taylor? That's for you to decide. The murder was never officially solved, though DiPietro certainly makes a strong case for one of the heavy players as the culprit... not that the truth really matters in the end, or so Hollywood says. Hollywood is playing at La Jolla Playhouse until June 12th. Tickets can still be purchased on the La Jolla Playhouse website.