The Guthrie Theater’s seven-week celebration of British playwright Christopher Hampton got off to a good-humored start on Friday night, what with both Twin Cities mayors—Rybak and Coleman—officially declaring Sept. 21 “Christopher Hampton Day,” and the first play of three, Tales of Hollywood, opening on the Wurtele Thrust stage.
If the name and play don’t ring a bell, rest assured that your cultural radar isn’t on the fritz. Hampton is best-known as the screenwriter of the 1988 film Dangerous Liaisons, which is itself an adaptation of Hampton’s play, Les Liaisons Dangereuses, which is an adaptation of a 1782 novel by Frenchman Choderlos de Laclos. He has written a ton of other plays and movies (including the Oscar-nominated script for Ian McEwen’s Atonement), but they are all the dramatic equivalent of literary fiction: smart and well-written, but unlikely to beat Spiderman or The Avengers at the box office. Hampton doesn’t do popular; he does intelligent, thoughtful, witty fare for educated people who can get his jokes. And to fully appreciate his sense of humor, it helps to be schooled in European literature and drama, have a working knowledge of world history, and enjoy clever wordplay.
Not that Tales of Hollywood is particularly high-brow; in fact, it goes high and low in equal measure, offering up something for everyone, even those who enjoy a little nudity with their intellectualism. The play is based on the true (and truly curious) situation German intellectuals such as Thomas Mann, Bertolt Brecht, Heinrich Mann (Thomas Mann’s older brother), and others found themselves in before and during World War II, when they fled Germany for Los Angeles (of all places) and found employment writing Hollywood screenplays that almost never got produced.
The idea of Bertolt Brecht trying to scratch out a living writing Hollywood movie scripts is a golden sit-com premise all its own, and Hampton knows a good comic set-up when he sees one. Stephen Yoakam is hilarious as the intensely neurotic Brecht, who despises everything about Los Angeles and is the inevitable highlight of every scene he’s in. Yoakam’s Brecht constantly struggles with the challenge of writing badly enough for the movies, and his rants about L.A. being “the funeral parlor of the spirit” and the land of “sell, sell, sell” are priceless. For theater buffs, the Brechtian in-jokes are amusing as well. Every time Brecht walks on stage he snaps his fingers and all the lights come on, a riff on Brecht’s penchant for bright, harsh lighting that is supposed to make the audience uncomfortable. It’s particularly humorous in this context, because the rest of the play is done film-noir style—moody and dark, with an occasional whiff of suicidal depression.
For the most part, Tales of Hollywood is a play about a bunch of German writers who spend their time trying to figure out what they are supposed to be doing in America while war runs its course in their homeland. The movie studios are mostly indifferent to their scripts, so they all have “serious” writing projects on the side, and over meals or drinks all have clever observations about the crass commercialism and shallowness of American life. The one exception is the narrator, Ödön Von Horváth (played by Lee Sellars), who finds American freedoms and eccentricities rather liberating. However, unlike Mann and Brecht, who actually did live in L.A. during World War II, Horváth died in a freak accident in Paris in 1938. The playwright, Christopher Hampton, brought him back to life as the fictional narrator of his pseudo-historical play, I suspect because he couldn’t find in his research any actual Germans who had anything good to say about the United States.
The set itself is a beautiful metaphor for the play’s subject matter. The entire back wall is a huge video screen, and the stage is framed as a movie soundstage. Throughout the play, video cameras project the action onstage on the back wall in black-and-white, making it look like art instantaneously imitating life; one as a reflection of the other. Very cool.
Tales of Hollywood isn’t a blockbuster like Kushner’s Caroline, or Change, but it is a solid start to the Hampton fete. Next up is Appomattox, which opens in two weeks, Hampton’s new play about the Civil War and its impact 100 years later. Then comes Embers, Hampton’s adaptation of a novel by Hungarian writer Sándor Márai.
Who?, you ask. Me too. Can’t wait to find out, though. See you there.
Tales of Hollywood continues through October 27 at The Guthrie Theater.