Even the best efforts of the finest theaters can misfire, although given The Blank Theatre’s stellar track record, I wasn’t expecting to find Jeff Tabnick’s Something Truly Monstrous such a disappointment.
The subject matter—a bit of Hollywood legend that was news to me—sounded intriguing to say the least.
Rumor has it that on the day John Barrymore died, Humphrey Bogart and Peter Lorre (then midway through filming Casablanca) decided to play a joke on studio head Jack L. Warner, a prank with a particularly devious ulterior motive.
If Hollywood gossips can be trusted, the bug-eyed, speech impediment-plagued, morphine-addicted Lorre was none too pleased about the exclusive contract he was being pressured by Warner Brothers to sign, fearing perhaps not unreasonably that it would mean seven years of bad luck playing B-movie villains.
With Bogart no more a fan of Jack Warner than his costar (Bogey was sure that Casablanca would be a major stinker/flop), the twosome cook up a fiendishly clever plot: to deposit John Barrymore’s freshly-expired body in Warner’s living room and give him the scare of a lifetime, an act so truly monstrous that JLW will want to have nothing to do with Lorre ever again.
Something Truly Monstrous follows Bogey and Peter (and eventually Casablanca fellow traveler Paul Henreid) on a drive through the streets of Hollywood, a body-bagged Barrymore their backseat passenger, on their way to an eventual arrival at the studio head’s Hollywood manse.
Tabnick’s play opens on a positive note, with an amusing, premise-establishing scene between a recently stabbed Bogey (yet again the victim of then wife Mayo Methot) and a freshly frazzled Peter (giving Baba Wawa a weaw wun fow hew money), but things soon descend into a mixture of overplayed comedy and over-the-top histrionics, i.e. lots of screaming of lines.
The duo’s driving-through-Hollywood sequence starts out promisingly too, with video designers Rick Baumgartner and Erik Carabasi’s spot-on recreation of the era’s now creaky black-and-white rear projection effects.
Still, with Bogey and Peter spouting words that sound nothing at all like authentic dialog only to be joined in the front seat by Paul (just when you thought the ride might at long last be over), whatever interest may have gotten piqued in the play’s opening scenes soon turns to tedium, particularly with nary a character we can care enough about to become invested in.
Director Daniel Henning did brilliant work in last year’s The Why, but he seems stymied by Tabnick’s all-over-the-place script.
As Peter Lorre, Amir Levi comes closest to convincing us that he is the film legend he is impersonating, though the actor’s best efforts are increasing sabotaged by scenes that have him taking Peter up way too many notches.
Craggily handsome Jason Paul Field and hunky blond Jilon Van Over are close enough in looks to give us the initial impression that they are Humphrey Bogart and Paul Henreid, but neither one ends up convincing us he is the Hollywood icon being portrayed. (No more convincing is the too-lightweight dummy stuffed inside the body bag.)
Then again, it’s hard to imagine any performer not being confounded by a script that has its actors walking the tightrope between authenticity and Saturday Night Live.
Production design elements are more than adequate. Ginnie Ann Held’s set suggests multiple Hollywood locales, Jeremy Pivnick’s lighting is imaginative as always (with a special tip of the hat to the film-noir-lit car sequence), Warren Davis’s sound design sets a darkly comedic mood, and Allison Dillard’s costumes are period-perfect too.
Something Truly Monstrous is produced by Sarah Allyn Bauer, Henning, and Noah Wyle. Terena Cardwell, Victoria Esquer, Jennifer Kim, and Andy Wagner are associate producers. Samantha Else is stage manager and Stephen Boatright is assistant stage manager.
Casting is by Erica Silverman Bream & Cara Chute Rosenbaum. Shawn Law (Peter Lorre), Yuri Lowenthal (Humphrey Bogart), and Christian Zuber (Paul Henreid) make up Something Truly Monstrous alternate cast.
Over the past several years, Blank Theatre productions like Sons Of The Prophet, The Why, and Peter Pan: The Boy Who Hated Mothers have added luster to one of Hollywood Row’s crown jewels. I only wish the same could be said about Something Truly Monstrous.
The Blank Theatre Company’s 2nd Stage Theatre, 6500 Santa Monica Boulevard, in Hollywood.
October 9, 2105
Photos: Anne McGrath