Chance and history hang over the European émigrés in "Tales From Hollywood," Christopher Hampton's literary play that opened last Friday. The show, which kicks off both the Guthrie Theater's 50th season and its three-play Hampton festival, reimagines literary history as characters such as Thomas and Heinrich Mann and Bertolt Brecht deal with themes of anti-Semitism, war and exile.
Written in 1983, "Tales" is novelistic, both in its narrator-heavy telling and its invented plot. It is centered on German-speaking Austro-Hungarian writer Ödön von Horvath, who died in 1938 after a tree branch hit him in the head.
He is resurrected in this play, where said accident happens vividly, but to someone else. Von Horvath lives and moves to Hollywood, where he is called Ed, at the same time as a cadre of German writers.
The production is staged fluidly by Ethan McSweeny, who has directed some daringly affecting shows at the Guthrie, including John Guare's "Six Degrees of Separation" and Arthur Miller's "A View From the Bridge."
Here, he and projection designer Jason H. Thompson use cinematic elements -- even a Foley-style sound-effects person -- to make this talky, occasionally static work more engaging and intimate. The live projections of the actors augment the performers without stealing attention from them.
The director uses a team of clever designers, including Lee Savage, whose large-scale, cavernous set is expanded and collapsed by lights and props to express both the writers' yawning ambition and their small-bore realities.
Leading a first-rate cast, charismatic Lee Sellars invests Ödön with inviting wit and warmth. He is a study in versatility, popping effortlessly in and out of accents and scenes.
With his scruffy hair and intellectually commanding presence, Stephen Yoakam delivers a dry, prickly Brecht who is far more comical than the severe figure we know as author of such anti-fascist classics as "Mother Courage and Her Children." Allison Daugherty gives Nelly Mann, Heinrich's wife, a voluptuous, eye-popping embodiment, even if this long-suffering, sex-starved character is written a bit too much to type. The production also has a confident performance by Bob Davis as Thomas Mann and a more diffident turn by Keir Dullea as his older, spiritually hobbled brother, Heinrich.
Hampton updated some of the language in "Tales." He might have cut the N-word, which jumps from the narrator's mouth like a noxious effluence. It momentarily ejected me from an often absorbing theatrical experience.
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