Joe DiPietro thinks he has a pretty good idea who committed what might be Hollywood’s most notorious unsolved murder.
And the answer is ... well, you’re just going to have to go see the world-premiere La Jolla Playhouse show “Hollywood” to find out.
But what’s another few days (the play begins performances this week) when the world has been waiting nearly 100 years for someone to crack the case?
Actually, DiPietro - the Tony Award-winning writer of the Playhouse-bred Broadway hit “Memphis” and many other musicals and plays - isn’t promising an airtight resolution to the 1922 killing of the top film director William Desmond Taylor.
“Hollywood,” which DiPietro and director Christopher Ashley (the theater’s artistic chief) call a noir thriller, is as much a look at the machinations and fascinations of Tinseltown as it is a mystery saga.
“Really, at the end of the day, you can’t solve this case, because the evidence was destroyed,” says DiPietro, a longtime old-movie buff who became intrigued with the Taylor story several years ago.
When: Previews begin May 10. Opens May 18. 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Wednesdays; 8 p.m. Thursdays-Fridays; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays; 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Through June 12.
Where: La Jolla Playhouse’s Mandell Weiss Theatre, 2910 La Jolla Village Drive (Playhouse/UC San Diego Theatre District)
Tickets: About $25-$87
Phone: (858) 550-1010
“Clearly the powers that be did not want this case solved. It was really terrible police work from the beginning, and then the evidence disappeared. That’s why I think there was some really major cover-up going on.”
It’s true that DiPietro does trot out one person he considers his prime suspect before show’s end.
“But every time the play becomes too much of a police procedural, Chris and I say to each other, this can’t be a special episode of ‘Law and Order,’” he says with a laugh.
“It has to be about the people and what they represented, and the bigger themes.”
Those themes include Americans’ love/hate relationship with Hollywood and our obsession with movie-biz scandal, a phenomenon that DiPietro says has its roots in the era “Hollywood” covers.
A major figure in the play is Will Hays (played by Patrick Kerr), Hollywood’s first morals czar. He was the man who implemented the restrictive film-production guidelines (popularly known as the Hays Code) that remained in effect until the 1960s. And he was hired just before the Taylor affair.
“This case, coupled with (the manslaughter case of actor) Fatty Arbuckle, whose second trial was going on at the same time, was really the birth of the celebrity scandal as we know it today,” says DiPietro.
“But I also think the show is very much about America, and Hollywood as symbolic of America. And Will Hays as symbolic of conservatism in America. And how it grew into something then, and how it continues to grow in many different ways.
“I just thought it was a fascinating metaphor for what’s going on.”
The Taylor affair was actually one of five scandals related to Paramount Pictures that unfolded around that same time.
And there was no shortage of speculation about who was responsible for Taylor’s death. (That speculation continues today: DiPietro says a new book on the case comes out every four or five years.)
Among the prime figures in “Hollywood” are Mabel Normand (Kate Rockwell), a silent-film actress and a close friend of Taylor’s; Mary Miles Minter (Talene Monahon), an up-and-coming starlet; and Charlotte Selby (Tony winner and Playhouse returnee Harriet Harris), Minter’s domineering mother.
“What always fascinated me about this story were the three main women,” DiPietro says. “These were three strong women, and millionaires; people didn’t have that kind of money (then). How they got there, and just the fact that they were associated with this, was a fascinating story.”
To tell that story, DiPietro and Ashley are using tropes and techniques of the silent era, even putting composer Wayne Barker onstage to play his original score for the show.
“The ‘20s are amazing as a world for a director to work within,” says Ashley, who directed “Memphis” and has worked on several other shows with DiPietro. “Silent film is so fun to put onstage. The visual style of those films is so startling and stunning, and so sophisticated.
“The show is a whodunit, with silent-film and kind of noir impulses. (But) it’s also an exploration of a moment in America when people got really angry about how things were going.”
Beyond taking a shot at solving the crime, DiPietro also relishes solving the staging of a brand-new play with Ashley once again.
“I think one thing about Chris and I is that we both like to pick things apart and put them back together,” he says. “We’re both big collaborators. And I feel I can say anything to him, and he certainly says anything to me, without getting offended. We know we love each other’s work.
“I’m a firm believer that theater has to entertain first. Theater has to work for a living. It can say whatever you want, but you have to be entertaining first. And I think Chris feels that, too.”