LOS ANGELES – The ruins of the Murphy Ranch, an abandoned pre-WWII Nazi compound in Pacific Palisades, a stony area of L.A. north of Santa Monica on the route toward Malibu, have inspired a new play, now enjoying its world premiere in Hollywood. Blueprint for Paradise by Laurel M. Wetzork reconfirms that L.A. is a magnificent town for great theatre. Every one of its seven actors has a long list of credits in film, TV, and video – which likely accounts for why they’re here.
Blueprint for Paradise was a semi-finalist in both the national Eugene O’Neill playwriting competition and the HUMANITAS/Center Theatre Group playwriting competition (2015).
Set in late 1941 during the weeks leading up to Pearl Harbor, and inspired by true events, Wetzork imagines the relationship between African-American architect Paul Revere Williams (designer of landmark L.A. buildings including Saks Fifth Ave and the Los Angeles County Courthouse, as well as private residences for a number of well known movie stars) and a wealthy American couple (he’s a fishing magnate) who employed him to design a compound and training ground for Nazi sympathizers – keeping from him, of course, the true nature of the project.
There was in fact a couple, Winona and Norman Stephens, sympathizers of American pro-Nazi groups, who purchased fifty acres of land intended to be a self-sufficient base for Nazi activities in the U.S., complete with its own water storage and fuel tanks, bomb shelter, a four-story, 22-bedroom mansion, and various outbuildings and bunkers. In the play the couple are Clara and Herbert Taylor.
The abandoned site, currently in a state of disrepair and covered in graffiti, is owned by the City of Los Angeles and has become a popular hiking destination. In February, 2016, many of the structures were demolished due to safety concerns, but some of Williams’ architectural work is still extant.
Rooting her play in historical events, Wetzork places special emphasis on race relations and the subjugation of women in the larger context of Nazi thinking, especially the sterilization movement. The American eugenics movement, represented by the Human Betterment Foundation, based in Pasadena, attracted support from many “leading citizens,” including the president of the University of Southern California, board chairman of the California Institute of Technology, the publisher of the Los Angeles Times, university professors, pastors, medical and scientific professionals and other private individuals. The objective was to “improve” society by weeding out “defectives,” the “feeble-minded,” “mentally diseased,” and poor people on public charity – in other words, a whiter America with “fewer or none of everyone else.” The German Nazi movement picked up much of this ideology from America.
Members of Clara Taylor’s (Meredith Thomas) household include her loyal and insightful, though not English-fluent Chinese maid Fenny Gao (Ann Hu) and an Italian valet Alessandro “Alex” Farnase (Alex Best). They get the “intersectionality” of oppression – of themselves as immigrants with accents, and of their mistress who is squashed under her husband Herbert’s (David Jahn) thumb.
When the highly recommended Paul Williams (Regi Davis) appears – to Clara’s shock he turns out to be a Black man! – she is initially reluctant to engage him, but Wetzork weaves a subtle fabric of mutually discovered interests that bond Clara and Williams closer. “I wanted to examine the wife’s journey,” the playwright says, “to discover how Williams’ achievements and personality might have shaken her preconceived notions of the way the world should work.”
The Human Betterment Foundation, the ultra-conservative Mothers of America, the fascist Silver Legion of America, the America First moment, all formed part of a vast network of corporate-sponsored pro-German groups that opposed U.S. involvement in the war all the way up to December 7, 1941. Among the other pillars of their undemocratic ideology, Wetzork also shows this crowd as intensely anti-Communist and anti-union (no surprise there). If fascism is an extreme form of capitalism as a corporate state that governs in the absence of democratic, egalitarian rights, Wetzork completely nails how a certain sector of American industrialists were prepared to encourage a Nazi victory in Europe and the spread of such a system to the Americas. The compound in Pacific Palisades would have been its HQ for the Western U.S.
Two other characters fill out the cast of seven, the sinister Nazi agent Wolfgang Schreiber (Peter McGlynn) whose promises to Herbert Taylor of corporate monopoly in the fishing sector after the Nazi takeover lead the American industrialist into a relationship of pathetic dependency; and a Southerner, improbably named Ludwig Gottschalk (Steve Marvel), who is a homegrown Nazi leader. His was the only character whose backstory needed more exposition to be completely believable.
Laura Steinroeder directs this expert crew of actors. Some of these characters, although fully developed, are standard-issue “types” from the Forties, like the German Nazi and the Chinese maid. The fragile but surprisingly resilient Clara and Paul Williams (who reminds me of a younger James Earl Jones) stand out as the most original and evolved. In fact, the Forties esthetic dominates here as Wetzork’s homage to the era. If we didn’t know otherwise, we could easily imagine this as a stage version of a classic noir film, except perhaps for some allusions to Nazi philosophy that sound purposefully contemporary. The author has lovingly constructed a polished “well-made play” à la Lillian Hellman of The Little Foxes and Watch on the Rhine.
That once almost obligatory style of drama subsequently came under criticism, if not attack and ridicule, for taking no account of experimental techniques, for wrapping up all the problems and ambiguities in a neat bow at the end. It became “dated” and “passé,” but here it works just fine: The tip of the hat to that era is noted and appreciated. If the “well-made play” happens to be your thing, then from that point of view alone, not to mention the politics and the pure theatre of Blueprint for Paradise, this is your ticket.
The effective single neocolonial living-room set design is by Gary Lee Reed; moody lighting is by Matthew Gorka; sound by Cricket S. Myers with timely news broadcasts about military events in Europe; and stylish costumes by Michael Mullen.
Any theatergoer will have a highly satisfying experience with this play. More than that, it is also a cautionary tale about what was going on under our noses just a few miles from where it’s being staged, and what, without vigilance, could happen again in the country we live in.
Blueprint for Paradise plays through Sept. 4, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 pm and Sundays at 3 pm, at the Hudson Theatres, 6539 Santa Monica Blvd., Los Angeles 90038. For information and tickets, please contact (323) 960-4412 or www.BlueprintForParadise.com.