There's a lot of window dressing in the Guthrie's Tales from Hollywood, anchored by the play's central conceit — that the scenes we are watching are being filmed, complete with camera crews and Foley artists, with the results projected on the massive screens at the back of the stage.
I'm not sure how much all that contributes to the eventual whole, but Tales from Hollywood is a rock-solid experience, buoyed by a talented cast and driven by a handsome production aesthetic that does a magnificent job of using the Wurtele Thrust space and the Guthrie's technical capabilities. It's a solid kickoff for the theater's Christopher Hampton celebration that finds its footing in a strong second act.
Hampton takes a fictional journey amid real people, opening with a rather daring conceit. Our guide through this adventure is Odon von Horvath, a Hungarian author who may have ended up in Hollywood with the rest of the literary refugees — if he hadn't died in 1938 after a tree branch fell on his head.
Tales From HollywoodGuthrie Theater818 S. Second St., Minneapolis612.377.2224; through October 27
In Hampton's alternative world, the branch claims a different victim, and Horvath (Lee Sellars) finds himself in America, among many of his colleagues. He becomes a silent participant, lurking on the fringes of real-world events and characters. Though there are plenty of incidents from the 12-year-span the play covers, three of Horvath's key relationships propel the story: with Heinrich and Nelly Mann, with Bertolt Brecht, and with a young, idealistic screenwriter, Helen Schwartz.
While the sort-of love affair with Schwartz (Julia Coffey) is primarily there to explore the anti-communist fervor of post-war America, the other two provide some emotional and intellectual heat. The sad story of the Manns — both would die in California, far from their native land — is well played by Keir Dullea and Allison Daugherty. Their descending fortunes are played out in increasingly stark homes, until the last one they share seems to be decorated only with a pair of hard, stiff-backed chairs.
The real heat, however, comes from Stephen Yoakam's Brecht. Loud, profane, and direct, Brecht cuts a brash, decidedly American figure. Yoakam, decked out in working-man's clothes and constantly smoking a cigar, takes his character and runs with it, wringing every bit of bravado out of the famed director.
And while Horvath is largely an observer — think Cliff from Cabaret — he is a near-constant presence onstage. Sellars crafts an amiable guide who has enough depth to keep us interested in the personal touches of his story, even as the focus sometimes shifts to the other characters.
With a cast of 17 and the constantly shifting backdrops (created by designer Lee Savage), director Ethan McSweeny manages to keep the focus primarily on the action. Tales from Hollywood feels overproduced, especially during a sometimes aimless first act, but McSweeny and the company find the focus before the figurative curtain and use it to fuel a solid, entertaining, and sometimes thrilling second half.