Hollywood Like You've Never Seen

You’ll either love or hate this review. That’s because you’ll either love or hate the premiere play of the Guthrie Theater’s 50th anniversary season, Christopher Hampton’s Tales from Hollywood, which opened Friday, September 21, on the Wurtele Thrust Stage.

First, a bit of myth busting. If the phrase “1940s Hollywood” conjures images of beautiful people doing glamorous things in your mind, block that out before going to see this play; this is not Marilyn Monroe’s Hollywood. Hampton’s portrayal of tinseltown is from the eyes of German writers forced to leave their home country during World War II. The once-famous names are now unknowns; authors whose books were worshiped in Europe (Heinrich Mann, played by Keir Dullea; Bertolt Brecht, played by Stephen Yoakam) are now no-name, one-in-a-million screenwriters forced to write cheap comedies for such companies as MGM and Warner Brothers. Their lives are bleak, and the majority of their opinions about our dear Hollywood are scathing.

Stephen Yoakam and Lee Sellars
Photo by Michael Brosilow

Second, a hint. At the beginning of the play, you’ll read that Ödön von Horváth (played by Lee Sellars) dies in 1938 when a tree branch falls on his head. This, historically, is true. However, the entire play revolves around Horváth’s life in Hollywood. How? Because Hampton’s play is a “what if” scenario based on what he thinks Horváth’s life might have looked like had he lived and moved to America.

Now, the sticky part. Tales from Hollywood is an unapologetically intellectual play. Names of directors, authors, playwrights, and politicians are thrown around as common knowledge, and much humor is tied to those personalities (you’ll especially see what I mean with regard to Brecht). This could potentially leave you feeling like an outsider to inside jokes. Things begin to come full circle and make more sense by the second act, however, so hang in there.

This is not an action-oriented play. Instead, the script literally follows the timeline of life in Hollywood and abroad from Horváth and other German emigrants’ perspective from 1938 to the mid 1950s. The events that take place—WWII, the Red Scare, blacklisting—are intense, but much of the play consists of nothing more than dialogue and monologue. One of the most impressive feats is Sellars’s ability to switch between a neutral “American” accent and a thick German accent, which is his way of differentiating between the times he’s being the narrator and conversing as Horváth.

Lee Sellars and Keir Dullea
Photo by Michael Brosilow

Much kudos must be paid to the behind-the-scenes team: set designer Lee Savage, projection designer Jason H. Thompson, sound designer Robert Kaplowitz, lighting designer Rober Wierzel, and director Ethan McSweeney. Throughout the entire performance, a visible camera crew captures video of the actors which plays live behind the cast on giant screens. The scene is precisely how one would imagine a 1940s movie set to feel, and the ambiance adds a crucial extra element of depth and tone to the production.

Glitz and glam Tales from Hollywood is not. Thought provoking and layered it is. Go with an open mind, maybe do a little bit of homework beforehand, and give it time to sink in before you form an opinion. Love it or hate it, you’ll leave with strong feelings toward it, and that, my friends, is the beauty of theater.

Tales from Hollywood
Through October 27
Guthrie Theater, 818 S. Second St., Mpls.
612-377-2224, guthrietheater.org