One of showbiz’s juiciest “Hollywood Babylon” stories involves the death of silent-film pioneer Thomas Ince during a weekend cruise aboard the yacht of publisher William Randolph Hearst in November 1924. Steven Peros’ intriguing, fictionalized speculation imagines the worst as everyone cavorts through an oceanic orgy of intrigue, seduction, infidelity, blackmail, booze, drugs and murder. Director Jenny Sullivan has fashioned a visually sumptuous staging that is both enhanced and thwarted by its own production values.
The wonderfully creative modular set design of Bill Eigenbrodt, the mood-enhancing lighting of J. Kent Inasy, the wonderfully detailed costuming of Christine Tschirgi and the evocative sound design of Joe Morrissey create a gloriously decadent atmosphere aboard Hearst’s luxury yacht, the Oneida, as it carries its glamorous but amoral passengers along two days of hijinx on the high seas.
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What suffers is the flow of action as each of the many scene changes is ponderously and laboriously carried out by three silent but stalwart ship stewards (Michael Thompson, Padraic Aubrey, Paul Eppleson). Sullivan would have served Peros’ text better with less set and more action.
But what titillating action it is, once it gets going. Among those on board are Ince (John C. Mooney), Hearst (Albert Stratton), film stars Marion Davies (Kim Bieber) and Charlie Chaplin (Joseph Fuqua), and columnist Louella Parsons (Nancy Cartwright). Also on board is Elinor Glyn (an effectively droll Pamela Gordon), the writer who coined the term “it” when referring to star quality and who serves as semi-narrator.
Each of the weekend voyagers is imbued with an intense, self-serving agenda. Ince is determined to get his host’s financial backing to save his crumbling film company. The all-powerful Hearst, who is revealed to be a dud in bed, is equally determined to keep the rapacious Chaplin away from his hot-eyed mistress, Davies.
Chaplin is indeed intent on having his way with the blond bombshell, while musing over his own pending problems, due to his impregnation of a 16-year-old starlet from his financially troubled production of “The Gold Rush.” Davies is ambivalent over whether to stay in Hearst’s decidedly cold bed or respond to the sexually smoldering but morally untrustworthy Chaplin.
Other intriguing subplots are provided by “Lolly” Parsons’ single-minded desire to get her employer to upgrade her status in the Hearst publishing empire; actress Margaret Livingston’s (Marianne Ferrari) angst over her second-class status as Ince’s mistress; and the shenanigans of two starlets, hilariously portrayed by Tracie May and Precious Chong, who are rigorously out to have a good time.
The absolute highlight of this production are the performances of Bieber and Fuqua. Bieber’s Davies exudes “it” from every pore as she beautifully balances a deeply caring affection for her aged lover while radiating a tangible sensuality whenever in the presence of Chaplin. And Fuqua is masterfully believable as the comic genius who is so obviously aesthetically superior to everyone around him, yet is an absolute slave to his own physical passions.
Though occasionally unsure of his lines, Stratton is highly effective as Hearst, who exhibits a pitiful vulnerability in his relationship with his young mistress, but forcefully demonstrates his far-reaching power while covering up the shooting of Ince.
Mooney is quite credible as the devious Ince. Not faring nearly as well is Emmy-winner Cartwright (the voice of Bart Simpson), who never seems comfortable in the persona of Louella Parsons.