“Tales From the Vienna Woods” author Odon von Horvath gets resurrected — literally — in the opening moments of “Tales From Hollywood,” but that’s nothing compared to the act of rebirth represented by John Crowley’s absolutely gorgeous production of Christopher Hampton’s play. At heart, the author’s audacious conceit is an exercise in mimesis: An English outsider to Hollywood (the Oscar-winning Hampton) writing a dream play of sorts about a now-vanished community of German and Hungarian outsiders to the dream factory of Los Angeles.
But the author’s empathy for his subject can’t begin to account for the force of a Donmar Warehouse revival that finds its own wounding poetry in Hampton’s account of cultural displacement and the scarier exile of an individual at odds with himself. In its quiet, unhyped way, this staging vindicates in a single stroke — like “Habeas Corpus” and “Passion Play” before it — the Donmar’s informal policy of mounting the first London revival of a modern play: I doubt “Tales From Hollywood” will ever be more moving.
Crowley’s staging certainly could move (its natural New York home would be someplace like Lincoln Center’s Mitzi Newhouse Theater, a potentially perfect showcase for Scott Pask’s shimmering swimming pool of a set), but it benefits incalculably from the conversational ease established in close quarters by Ben Daniels’ von Horvath. (He’s known as Ed in L.A., Odon not being a name that comes easily to WWII Lotusland’s lips.) So willing are we to surrender to his account of an afterlife — courtesy of Hampton’s invention, which pays sly homage to “Sunset Boulevard,” which the playwright later co-adapted as a musical — that it comes as a shock to discover to what extent “Tales From Hollywood” is about a community of walking dead.
The play chronicles an assemblage of disgruntled greats, from supremely well-known names — Brecht (Phil Davis) and Thomas Mann (Gawn Grainger) — to some lesser-known ones: Heinrich Mann (Richard Johnson), elder brother to Thomas, alongside whom von Horvath works at Warner Bros., pondering the lexicon of “screenings” and “scenarios” — not to mention Variety, which receives copious mention. (The play was commissioned by L.A.’s Center Theater Group.) Cut off from a European culture in thrall to the Third Reich, the itinerant intellectuals find themselves facing American-style unemployment and, worse, irrelevancy: They are free, yes, but also adrift, cadging pleasures where they may — Brecht adores American ice cream — amid a milieu that really couldn’t care less.
Hampton has a fine time anatomizing a societal landscape given over to “donuts, dentistry, (and) divorce.” But the play’s strength lies in transcending a facile history lesson — OK, the characters do tend to rattle off their resumes — even as it refuses to patronize either side of the America/Europe divide. Davis’ sparkily acted Brecht shows the prickliness animating a writer who also possesses a sense of play. (“Force of habit,” he explains, as the house lights once again come on with his arrival.)
Playing the dueling Manns, Grainger and the magisterial Johnson in turn embody self-absorption and self-disgust, Heinrich’s slow and bruising fade from this world facilitated by marriage to a much younger (and drunken) wife — Lizzy McInnerny’s blistering Nelly — who merely sees her husband as “old.”
Our guide through the evening, Daniels has the trickiest part, talking in two distinct accents (depending on von Horvath’s partner in conversation) while bearing witness to people whose lives inevitably seem more florid and tragic and literarily suggestive than his own. But the actor communicates a complicit delight with the audience even when the play’s tone turns despondent.
Here’s a narrator in love, von Horvath reports, “with the strange and the half-finished,” and damned if — for all the pain in “Tales From Hollywood” — you don’t end up loving him and the play right back.