I had seen this special theatre presentation almost a decade ago, and decided to give The Manor another whirl last week, just in case it turns-out to be the final year of its (so far) nineteen season run, (although LA audiences hope it’s not.) It’s also the first time the show is being produced since the pandemic, so we’re all returning to the scene of the crime* together. *[Note: That just might be a clue to the scenario.]
And you know what? I enjoyed it much more this time. (I might have been too immature to fully appreciate it nine years ago. I mean it!)
The Manor is a follow-the-actors-around play, with the most fascinating twist. Not only is it presented in a majorly significant location in general, Greystone Mansion in Beverly Hills, but this is the actual home where the real-life tale that this production is based on took place! That’s dramatic. And getting to see the interior of this historic edifice is half the fun of the entire experience.
The Manor is a semi-fictionalized work that’s taken from the lives of the early-ish 1900s Los Angeles Doheny family, whose patriarch was a main player in the Teapot Dome Scandal. I had to research the topic because I must have been absent that day, (as I was just about every day of History class!) I heartily suggest that you, also, research the Dohenys for yourselves, but you should wait until after you see the show, to discover how it relates to, and differs from, the true story. It’s infinitely interesting.
Other interactive shows often let you wander around willy-nilly, but for this one, we’re led. This is how it works here: The play begins in what I’m assuming is the drawing room of the Mansion, and then the audience is split into three groups divided by where everyone sits to start off the proceedings. (So make sure to keep your duo or group together when you take your first seats.) After that first scene, each group follows either the butler or one of two housekeepers to the next location, and it goes like that after each scene. It’s all very organized. (And no worries for you stairs-eschewers, as I am—all the scenes take place in different areas of the first floor. The historic grand staircase is used only to enter and exit the building, and at intermission; it’s actually a great privilege, so I suggest you take the time to appreciate the climb or descent.)
Every group gets to see every scene, of course, just in different orders, until the ends of both acts, when the assemblage comes together once again.
Adding to the coolness of the plot and location of The Manor is seeing the actors perform just a few feet from your face. What concentration they must have to not be distracted by anything in the close-up audience, (including a phone ringing in our group!) What amazes me even more is that the actors have to do each scene three times in a row in the same performance! Oysh. I couldn’t repeat my tales even twice in the two-decade run of my TV show! I thought Broadway was hard, with having to say the same lines for eight shows a week! It boggles my mind that these people are able to do the nightly-triple-scenes here.
As far as this cast goes, I enjoyed recognizing some of their faces from productions at Theater 40, the Artistic Director of which, David Hunt Stafford, is producing, (and playing the butler in,) The Manor. I’ve also seen a few of them in this show before. Daniel Leslie, who plays the Senator, has been doing so since the very beginning. He has such a good deep voice that I kept expecting him to break out into Ol’ Man River at any second!
The women, all new to me, really impressed me this time. Not that it’s a contest, but Carol Potter, as the patriarch’s wife, was the most real for me. I was actually in pain for her character. And there was something about Amy Tolsky, as the Senator’s wife, that put me at ease, especially seeing her act so up-close. I felt like I was just watching her talk with someone in my house. Lastly of them, Nathalie Rudolph, playing the bride who’s joining the family, is a brave girl because, in one scene, she’s half-naked in lingerie! It’s for only a few minutes, but she’s so close to the strangers in the audience. She didn’t even flinch on opening night! (So, ladies, you may not want to let your significant others sit in the front row in the first bedroom scene!)
And I cannot tell you how impressed I am with the very minimal lighting. The production uses solely the Mansion’s available house lights, but it’s all perfect. For example, the bedroom is lit with just five lamps, two on the wall and three on the floor. And the rest of the rooms follow suit. It adds so much to the 1920s ambiance, while still illuminating the action enough for the observers.
As entertaining as it all is, there are a few issues that need improvement. The first is that Peter Mastne, who plays the wealthy family scion, and new husband, talks waaaaay too low. Several people were remarking about it at intermission on opening night. At one point near the end of the show, I heard myself say, “What?!,” by accident, but I was talking as low as he was, (and was wearing a mask,) so nobody heard me, either, (thank goodness.) I needed subtitles for his lines! He must think he’s performing on TV or film, not stage.
The second issue is that my friend and I couldn’t figure-out exactly what accent Kristin Towers-Rowles, as the wife of the handyman-turned-friend-of-the-fam, is doing—it keeps changing. We both thought that in Act I, it’s mentioned she’s from New York, but then London in Act II. They should just not even name her place of origin, and let her speak normally. The character’s city of birth is not the least bit important to the narrative. Plus, she and Eric Keitel, the actor who plays her husband, seem to be doing two different shows, with Kristen overdoing her part quite a bit. But she can sing. (No, this is not a musical—Kristen does just one brief ditty in Act II.)
Thirdly, it should be made clear from the start of the second act that it’s now ten years later. One of the group leaders finally mentions it, but after a major new wrinkle in the story has already taken place. So that’s a tad confusing. The basically one-page program for the show is not exactly a fount of information; it just lists the cast, without time, place, cast bios, or any other pertinent info, such as that the second act takes place ten years later than the first! (But now you all know! So please spread the word to your fellow audience members when you see the show.)
And lastly in the complaint department is this: The character of one of the housekeepers who lead the groups around is mute. My friend thought that either the actress is so in real life, (but I’m pretty sure that I’ve seen her act elsewhere before, so that can’t be the case,) or she can’t remember lines, or was cast just that day. When I first saw this play years ago, I posited that perhaps the playwright just didn’t want to come-up with any lines for the character. No matter the rationale, it’s annoying. Just have her say, “Come with me, please,” or “Walk this way,” or even, “Get up, people!!!” Her muteness has absolutely nothing to do with the story, so that situation takes up too much brain space for the many audience members who spend their time thinking that condition is going to likely be the key to what happens in the script.
Now back to the positives. I was thrilled to discover that this time, chairs are provided for everyone in all the areas. I’m pretty sure that some people had to stand nine years ago, which was not comfortable for many of us.
The whole event starts off with the stage manager, Craig Hissong, apprising the assemblage of some production notes. On opening night, he entertained us all with his amusing detailed spiel. But he forgot to tell everyone to shut their phones! (Hopefully he’ll do that from here on out when he reads this. And if he doesn’t, I am, right now!)
And here are my suggestions for you to have the optimum experience at The Manor. For one of the second act scenes on the iconic staircase, (the one near the end of the show,) I suggest taking a seat at the bottom of it, rather than following the crowd up to the second floor overhang. My friend wrongly assumed that they were going to see more rooms up there, (even though I told her they were not,) so she started up the stairs, and then realized that I knew what I was talking about, (as always,) so she ran right back down to take a seat next to me, facing the action. I think it would be weird to have a bird’s eye view of that penultimate scene, but, if that’s your thing, go for it.
And I cannot stress this one enough—dress warmly! Keep in mind that Greystone Mansion is an incredibly old, drafty edifice, and it doesn’t appear to have any heat. I’m hot more often than not, but, despite rocking four layers and big old heavy (and, of course, fashionable,) boots, I was pretty chilly most of the time. And dress comfortably, as well, especially footwear. But at the same time, keep in mind that you have to carry all your possessions with you from area to area—including jackets, scarves, and big bags—so be prepared for that.
And here’s some fair warning for your stomach—you cannot eat inside the mansion, so don’t even think of bringing snacks with you. But no worries—there are complimentary beverages and packaged treats, (such as chips and cookies,) at intermission out in the courtyard, (which is where I met the incredible Usain Bolt in 2011, so Greystone always has a place in my heart.)
And, to round out the specialness, the parking is free, as well.
The Manor running though February 3, 2024
Greystone Mansion 905 Loma Vista Drive, Beverly Hills