The Manor: Murder and Madness at Greystone is more than just a play that imitates life; it is art that mirrors the very happenings that occurred a century ago on its premises. Surely, the names are changed, but the references to the Doheny family, including a searing political scandal and tragic aftermath, are unmistakably accurate. Now in its 19th campaign, and probably most important yet following a four-year delay, The Manor has risen out of the pandemic as a persistently relevant, living-and-breathing historical account that echoes through the chandeliered rooms and halls of Beverly Hills’ iconic 55-room mansion. The performers, many of them staples of The Manor stage, are just as fascinating in their depictions as they were in years prior.
The ravishingly immersive Theatre 40 production, which is written by Katherine Bates and directed by Martin Thompson, has its attendees seated in an expansive living room where they are greeted by lingering apparitions who relive a series of escalating events which ultimately devastate the legacy of the McAlister clan — a fictional stand-in for the Dohenys.
As the McAlister’s house staff — comprised of Ellie the mute maid (Gail Johnston), Ursula the housekeeper (Katyana Rocker-Cook), and James the valet (David Hunt Stafford) — escort the ambulating audience (split into “red,” “green,” and “yellow” groups) to the bedroom, library, study, card room, and stairwell near the front door, assorted scenes play out. Depending on which group one is in, the scenes may be ordered differently (the actors will repeat them for each crowd), but the idea is the same: simultaneous drama is afoot and unfolding over a ten-year period, as doors are slammed, deals are made, voices are raised, secrets see the dawn of light, and passions come to a boil. Throughout the two-hour-and-forty-five-minute experience, Johnston, Rocker-Cook, and Stafford (also the producer) are excellent at not only guiding the proceedings as the help but augmenting the tension and eliciting additional empathy with their expressions.
Readily salient is the beauty of Bates’ writing, which poetically calms the fly-on-the-wall observers, in the wake of the calamitous storm, upon witnessing patriarch Charles McAlister (Darby Hinton), alongside his supportive wife Marion (Carol Potter), gift his son Sean (Peter Mastne) and his new bride Abby (Nathalie Rudolph) the key to the estate. However, what is initially a copacetic wedding party shows signs of cracking as Gregory Pugh, the resident handyman (Eric Keitel) and longtime friend of Sean and Abby, stews in the corner with a flask that never leaves his side. We learn that Gregory is entrapped in a marriage to an unabashed, feather boa-wearing former entertainer in Henrietta (Kristin Towers-Rowles) who repels him.
Then there is the opportunistic Senator Alfred Winston (Daniel Leslie) who, like Charles, is married to a relatively unassuming wife named Cora (Amy Tolsky). Impelled by the desire to further his political career, Alfred proposes to Charles the notion that if his McAlister Industries were to fund a naval base in Pearl Harbor, Alfred would grant Charles exclusive mining rights in New Mexico’s Ojos Negros. Embedded in this arrangement is a $100,000 “loan” hand-delivered in cash by Sean and Gregory to Winston in Washington, D.C.
History buffs will recognize Secretary of the Interior Albert Fall in Winston and the Teapot Dome scandal, amid President Warren G. Harding’s tenure, as the inauspicious result of an agreement gone wrong. The Manor details myriad criminal ramifications, too, which are navigated by veteran lawyer Frank Parsons, father to Abby. The abrupt shift in perception of the McAlisters, who can do no wrong in Act I, only to be on the brink of courtroom peril in Act II, is engrossing. Secondary to that is the thrilling love quadrangle among Sean, Abby, Gregory, and Henrietta, which culminates harrowingly as repressed feelings and misunderstandings are jolted to fruition.
Front and center among the performers is Darby Hinton as Charles McAlister who enthralls with his toughened, but also compassionate, presence. Charles is, compared to Winston, less culpable in that he has to be persuaded into a contract he has early reservations about; nevertheless, as the narrative and real life suggest, even well-intentioned decisions can backfire. Hinton, moreover, terrifically gets across Charles’ righteous anger (e.g., “Why are they crucifying me?”) and urgency to protect his family from further sordidness. To this end, John Combs’ Frank Parsons is a caring and dedicated legal representative who does everything in his remit to save his in-laws.
Daniel Leslie, too, deserves praise for thoroughly fleshing out the portrayal of Al Winston as a complete human being, with complexities and all, such that the audience has a harder time pinpointing his motivations in a black-or-white sort. The allure of influence can make gamblers out of individuals like Winston, who, as a function of Leslie’s interpretation, is at times likable for being so passionate about his pursuits even if they’re backed by fewer scruples.
Nathalie Rudolph, as Abby, is compelling at conveying her character’s competing emotions for her husband Sean and Gregory, the latter of whom’s lower station in life has made it impossible to have her. Peter Mastne makes for an understanding Sean who, instead of being overwrought with jealousy, tries to ensure the long-term happiness of his wife. Mastne, furthermore, impresses with the ease in which he takes a few physical tumbles.
Substantially contributing to one of the play’s hooks is Eric Keitel whose miserable Gregory only becomes more despondent and unrestrained over time. Similarly, Kristin Towers-Rowles’ ideally crafted and obnoxiously vivacious Henrietta feeds into Gregory’s melancholy with a needling passive-aggressiveness.
Last, but not least, is Carol Potter whose Marion has her moment in the sun in Act II during a successive number of conversations with several characters, none more profound than a heart-to-heart with Amy Tolsky’s Cora Winston. Potter and Tolsky’s brilliantly executed scene begins with a palpable bitterness that softens as their personae realize they may have more in common than not. It’s such a powerful exchange that, in a play with sundry on-point reflections, it rings with the most honesty.
Overall, The Manor lives on as a one-of-a-kind escape into a bygone era that imparts lessons and reminds that while the affluent and powerful may play by different rules, they’re not always immune to the threat of repercussions, which can sometimes be nondiscriminatory and often rooted in the human experience. Bates’ play is unique in that it artfully doubles as both a riveting performance and a tour through a landmark; thus, for both residents and visitors to Southern California alike, The Manor is, in a manner of speaking, highly recommended.
For more information about The Manor at the Greystone Mansion, which runs through Saturday, February 3rd, please visit theatre40.org. Reservations can also be made by calling (310) 364-3606.