The weeks leading up to Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor provide the historical backdrop for Blueprint For Paradise, Laurel M. Wetzork’s fascinating, fact-inspired look at the unlikely friendship between the heiress wife of an American Nazi sympathizer and the African-American architect hired to design a “refugee compound” on fifty-acres of the couple’s Pacific Palisades estate.
It soon becomes clear, however, that Clara has been denied what 21st-century women take for granted. A mind of her own.
Parroting her fishing company owner husband’s belief that “Los Angeles is simply a cesspool of criminal immigrants and blacks, all of them lazy workers,” Clara ignores evidence to the contrary provided by her bright if English-challenged Chinese maid Fennie (Ann Hu), whose war-related newspaper clippings Clara refuses even a passing glance.
No wonder, then, that Clara’s first reaction upon discovering that the man being considered to design the couple’s refugee compound is a member of a “inferior race” is one of shocked dismay.
It’s only when real-life USC grad Paul Revere Williams (Regi Davis) happens to comment on a photo he’s noticed in the Taylors’ hallway that all that begins to change, the architect’s remark having brought up the one thing both he and Clara have in common, a seemingly irreparable loss that one of them is managing to overcome in ways that the other simply cannot.
Her curiosity (and humanity) piqued, Clara reconsiders her initial intention to have Italian servant Alessandro “Alex” (Alex Best) show Paul the door, allows him to present his ideas for the compound, and upon offering some of her own, hears herself described for perhaps the first time since her marriage as intelligent.
There’s just one hang-up. Hubby Herbert (David Jahn) will surely never agree to a Negro architect, even one who has designed Saks Fifth Avenue and dozens of Hollywood celebrity homes.
Even less likely to hire Paul are the Taylors’ out-of-town visitors Wolfgang (Peter McGlynn) and Ludwig (Steve Marvel), whose plans for the compound may have something to do with the “glorious leader” Clara “did so enjoy meeting” at the Berlin Olympics.
For its historical tidbits alone, Blueprint For Paradise proves an eye-opening look at a time when a surprising number of Americans supported Hitler rather than see their country wage war, when groups like the Human Betterment Society promoted “bettering” America through forced sterilization of those deemed “inferior,” and when a ground-breaking black American taught himself to draw upside-down so as not to force his white clients to sit by his side.
Still, it is the relationship between its two lead characters that turns Wetzork’s play from interesting (albeit at times 1940s spy-thriller melodramatic) to downright gripping whenever it’s Thomas (sensational) and Davis (superb) sharing the stage.
The radiant Thomas’s awakening to the multitude of possibilities life might offer a woman heretofore told that her only option was to “be subject to” her husband, and the physically imposing Davis’s quiet dignity when called a “thing” to his face are just two reasons that theirs are two of the year’s most memorable performances.
Under Laura Steinroeder’s snappy direction, Best, Jahn, Marvel, and McGlynn make the most of their rather two-dimensional roles, with Hu delivering the standout supporting turn, taking a clichéd part and, like Hattie McDaniel in Gone With The Wind, making it rich and multilayered.
Scenic designer Gary Lee Reed has done a terrific job of scaling down the Taylors’ Hancock Park home to 99-seat proportions, a living room impeccably dressed by properties designer Bonnie Bailey-Reed. Matthew Gorka’s lighting serves to enhance the play’s intimate dramatic moments. Cricket S. Myers’ sound design blends musical nostalgia with authentic-sounding radio broadcasts. Best of all are Michael Mullen’s pitch-perfect period costumes, in particular Clara’s stunning elegant daywear.
Blueprint For Paradise is produced by Racquel Lehrman of Theatre Planners. Victoria Watson of Theatre Planners is associate producer. Debbie Bolsky and The Athena Cats are executive producers. JP Rosenveldt is technical director. Mike Mahaffey is fight director. Letitia Chang is stage manager and Trevor Alkazian is assistant stage manager.
Casting is by Michael Donovan, CSA. Richie Ferris is casting associate. Wil Bowers plays Paul on Sundays August 14 and 28 and September 4, and joins Sean Galuska, Maura M. Knowles, Jonathon Lamer, Candace Leung, Paul Nygro, and Ryan Reilly for alternate cast performances on August 19 and 21.
As an unexplored bit of L.A. history, Blueprint For Paradise is bound to inspire Googling galore. Still, it’s what happens when Clara’s eyes get opened to life’s infinite possibilities that make this World Premiere drama an August treat.
The Hudson Mainstage, 6539 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood.
August 12, 2106
Photos: Ed Krieger