There's something fascinating about the glitz and glamour of 1930s Hollywood—the era when big film studios ruled the roost and star-studded movie extravaganzas were cranked out in mass quantities. It was a time of great success and productivity for the motion picture capital; it was also a time often characterized by scandal, greed, and the sacrifice of art for the sake of monetary gain. In short, Hollywood in its heyday was a typical moneymaking machine that was ripe for social satire—borne out in this fictionalized account of Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw's real-life visit to Tinseltown.
Accompanied by his wife, Charlotte, the crusty but quick-witted Shaw headed to California in 1933 for the final leg of a round-the-world sojourn. For the seventysomething Shaws the visit was quite an adventure, beginning with an emergency plane landing on a Malibu beach and culminating with a tour of the MGM studios. There the couple was feted at a luncheon hosted by Marion Davies and attended by such luminaries as Louis B. Mayer, William Randolph Hearst, Clark Gable, and John Barrymore.
One can only imagine the thoughts spinning through Shaw's sharp mind amid such vaunted company. But thanks to author Mark Saltzman, in this comedy we get a taste of some of the clever banter that might have passed between Shaw and his fellow guests, as Shaw attempts to soak in the Hollywood lifestyle and the others jockey for the rights to Shaw's hit play Pygmalion. Ultimately, with Shaw's wry humor and satiric wit as its anchor, Saltzman's script turns out to be an inventive and amusing romp that both celebrates and lightheartedly indicts Hollywood's glitzy reputation.
Under Daniel Henning's adroit direction, this world premiere production is a polished staging. MGM's back lots and Davies' ritzy bungalow are vividly rendered by designer Dwight Richard Odle; Julie Keen's '30s-style costumes are picture-perfect, and Henning lends a lightly farcical pacing that highlights Saltzman's smart dialogue. Capping off the flawless look and feel of the staging, the performers ingeniously embody the appearance and mannerisms of their famous characters. As Shaw, Nicolas Coster offers an aptly sardonic and slightly bemused attitude. His low-key delivery of Saltzman's one-liners draws the heartiest laughter. Playing Shaw's verbal sparring partner and wife, Mala Powers is equally charming.
With infectious enthusiasm, the rest of the ensemble plays up all the quirks and charisma of each character. Glenn Taranto as Mayer is blustery and obsequious; Carmen Thomas is engagingly gutsy as bombshell Davies; Steven Gilborn as newspaper magnate Hearst is an overbearing presence, and Peter Van Norden and J. Richey Nash as Barrymore and Gable, respectively, turn in comedic portrayals of their leading-man characters.
This production offers a delightful and nostalgic stroll into Hollywood history.
"Mr. Shaw Goes to Hollywood," presented by and at Laguna Playhouse, 606 Laguna Canyon Rd., Laguna Beach. Tues.-Fri. 8 p.m., Sat. 2 & 8 p.m., Sun. 2 & 7 p.m. Apr. 5-May 4. $42-49. (949) 497-2787.