By MIRA REINBERG
Some of playwright and screenwriter Christopher Hampton’s most refined plays contemplate the conjunction of history and literature. Such was the exquisite screenplay of Dangerous Liaisons, which brought to life the cynicism and manipulation of life in eighteenth-century French court and pushed its travesties to the limit. Likewise, his adaptation of Atonement dramatized the persistent vulnerability of lower-class staff members in pre-World War I England.
Tales from Hollywood is an ode to the effort undertaken by organizations in the United States to come to the rescue of writers fleeing Nazi persecution in pre-1938 Germany and Eastern Europe. Indeed, under Ethan McSweeny’s direction and Lee Savage’s stunning design the entire set is a ballad to one of America’s most dynamic and influential institutions: 1930’s Hollywood. Individual scenes are shot onstage and screened on a prodigious screen, blurring the lines between personal dramas and cinematic productions, between artists and industry, between theater and film.
But acceptance at the new haven demanded that the newcomers relinquish their traditional genres and style. Hampton’s alliance lies both with the welcoming country and with the tribulations of the exiled writers. With the resurrected figure of Hungarian playwright Ödön von Horváth as narrator (who in real life died of an accident in Paris in 1938), the play documents dutifully the misfortunes of the banished writers, among whom some of the most eminent of German-language writers — Bertolt Brecht, Lion Feuchtwanger, Thomas and Heinrich Mann, Nelly Mann, Helene Weigel, and Salka Viertel
The dialogue is poignant where it captures the tension between the émigrés’ appreciation of the fortuitous circumstances that granted them refuge in this country, and their frustration at their exploitation by the film industry, the meager wages they were paid, and mediocrity that marks cultural creation in America. It is telling that Horváth, the one fictional character in the play, played calmly and with the right measure of self-irony by Lee Sellars, seems content to adapt to the new country’s crude mores and avails himself of its financial potential and the abundance of romantic conquests it offers
Of the other, less obliging protagonists, it is the tragic lot of Heinrich Mann and his wife Nelly – played movingly by Keir Dullea and Allison Daugherty – that draws the playwright’s compassion. Bertolt Brecht, in a fiery performance by Stephen Yoakam, is a rather jaunty intellectual, who spews impish banter about the national character of the sheltering country where one finds “Capitalist apples – red and seductive but tasting like a sponge” and no truly good writers.
Perhaps this production is best in its orchestration of the subdued subtleties of the script: of the untold calamities that displaced the writers from their homes, the belittlement they endured from publishers and producers, and the portending practices of Congress toward their suspect Communist engagement. On rare occasions does the pain unravel forcefully, but it is throbbing all along the production.
Tales from Hollywood by Christopher Hampton. Directed by Ethan McSweeny, set design by Lee Savage. At the Guthrie Theater, September 15 – October 27, 2012 on the Wurtele Thrust Stage. Tickets at 818 South 2nd Street Minneapolis, MN 55415 612 3772224 or http://www.guthrietheater.org/