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A murder story at the scene of the crime

January 03, 2008|Mindy Farabee

LOS ANGELES loves scandal, and the rich and famous among us have long obliged with tawdry affairs, heart-stopping hubris and murderous antics. And with the theatrical experience "The Manor," we get an intimate look at a real doozy.

Kathrine Bates wrote and stars in the play, a rather tightly based takeoff on the oil-rich Doheny family and its involvement in President Warren G. Harding's disreputable dealings at Teapot Dome, an association which ultimately led to heir Ned's murder (in the very house given him by his family) and father Edward's being dogged by years of intense litigation.

"It's where my love of Shakespeare and soap opera converge," she says. "It's a tragic true crime, a rags-to-riches tale and a fall from grace."

It's also "one of the best kept secrets in L.A. And I'm tired of it being a secret," Bates says with a laugh. Now in its sixth year, "The Manor" has been inspiring standing ovations and consistently sold-out crowds since its inception, and currently has performances scheduled through the spring.

Part of its charm comes from its enviable immediacy. Bates actually penned the drama with a blueprint at her desk, because, during the show, audience members follow the actors around the very scene of the crime -- Beverly Hills' majestic Greystone Manor -- watching voyeuristically as dreadful events unfold before them. Assembled together in the mansion's elegant living room by three "family servants" at the show's beginning, spectators are then sorted into three groups and led off to separately witness the show in a slightly different order. Though that doesn't affect the play's story line, Bates says, it does require that its pacing breathe differently every night, a little something extra that keeps things fresh and actors on their toes as they constantly alter their rhythm to fill or contract time.

Producing the play this way also allows people to engage more with the characters, Bates believes -- to see them in a more empathetic light.

And all the while, the grand setting itself gives off an unforgettable aura. "The space is so arresting and melancholy," Bates says of the manor's dark stones that are arranged in a brooding, Gothic Tudor design. "You can almost sense something really sad happened here."

Bates' interest in the Doheny story was piqued nearly immediately upon her arrival in Los Angeles in the early '80s. But then, she has a thing for historical scandals, having also penned plays about Fatty Arbuckle and Lucrezia Borgia. It's part of her larger project, probing deeper into moments in our collective past when she believes a too summary judgment has been passed.

"I am drawn to characters who I feel have been unfairly maligned," she says.

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Mindy.Farabee@latimes.com

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THE MANOR

WHERE: Greystone Manor, 905 Loma Vista Drive, Beverly Hills

WHEN: 1 p.m. Sat.-Sun. in January (except Jan. 19, 20), 1 p.m. Sat.-Sun. in February (except Feb. 16, 17 and 24). See website for complete performance schedule

PRICE: $45

INFO: (310) 364-0535; www.theatre40.org

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