Let’s Review: ‘Hollywood’ sizzles in Playhouse premiere

Who doesn’t love a good mystery, especially one labeled unsavory and unsolved from the early 1920s? Playwright Joe DiPietro’s premiere of “Hollywood,” onstage at the La Jolla Playhouse, and directed by its artistic director Christopher Ashley, sheds new light on this real life event.

William Desmond Taylor (Scott Drummond), a popular director and actor with the studios and the “ladies,” is murdered in his home, right after one of his female admirers departs.

Investigations get nowhere as detectives question several suspects over and over. They know someone is responsible for shooting Taylor in the back, but are getting heat for taking so long to bring justice for this Hollywood player.

Adding more pressure on the detectives is newcomer to town Will Hays (Patrick Kerr), a somewhat self-appointed fixer-of-sin, who is hired by the studio as a public relations man. After fumbling around town and the crime scene, Hays breaks the fourth wall ranting at the audience how Hollywood movies need some standards. Thus the “Hays Code” of censorship in early Hollywood begins, causing filmmakers havoc for years to come.

The chief suspect is not Taylor’s girlfriend Mabel Normand (Kate Rockwell), but one obsessive young actress who wants to be his girlfriend, Mary Miles Minter (Talene Monahon). She is seen crawling on the drain pipe outside Taylor’s door when detectives arrive. The gumshoes have several suspects that keep their heads spinning, including the butler, the drug supplier and the young girl, who literally hangs on Taylor begging for his love.

The well-picked cast does an amazing job. Even though Taylor is dead most of the time, playwright DiPietro manages to find a way to work in scenes for him that keep the noir aspects chilling. Several of the females are standouts. Monahon has the voice of a child but her aggressive behavior toward Taylor is far from juvenile, and can be a little tedious at moments, yet we certainly understand her wishes.

Often stepping in her way is her mother Charlotte Shelby (Tony-winner Harriet Harris). She enters every scene like a mother hen turned into a tornado, and she is astounding. She lectures and makes demands, not only with her daughter, but other characters, as well. Normand (Rockwell) has her eyes on Taylor and is aware of her young rival, but doesn’t see her as a threat.

One thing I found missing in this production was the magic touch of the Playhouse’s design team. Although the fashions are divine, and there are some very clever elements — such as video snippets of newspapers, scenes from movies on the walls and other reminders of the era — the stage itself is basically empty. Things come and go, a bed where a couple have sex, a door to Taylor’s place, a piano that shows up for a scene, and a chair for mom to use to hover over Mary.

Nonetheless, the actors and director make DiPietro’s work come to life and be surely entertaining to mature audiences.

IF YOU GO: “Hollywood” runs through June 12 in the Mandell Weiss Theatre at La Jolla Playhouse, 2910 La Jolla Village Drive on the UCSD campus. Tickets from $20. (858) 550-1010. lajollaplayhouse.org

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