Review

'Something Truly Monstrous' draws drolly on golden age of Hollywood lore

Hollywood lore is rife with accounts of outlandish, undocumented occurrences, and among the urban legends of Tinseltown, what transpired the night John Barrymore died retains a mythic pull.

The rumor that Peter Lorre and Humphrey Bogart stole Barrymore’s corpse on May 30, 1942, has been alternately confirmed and debunked for decades. It’s a wickedly intriguing notion -- Blake Edwards cribbed it for “S.O.B.” -- that supplies the  premise of “Something Truly Monstrous” at the Blank Theatre.

Jeff Tabnick’s dark comedy opens with Lorre and Bogie between takes on “Casablanca.” Bogie grouses about lack of leading-man stature (ironically shooting the film that delivered exactly that). Lorre abhors the long-term, indentured-servitude contract Jack Warner wants him to sign.

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Barrymore's death spurs Lorre to desperate measures and, after a Mayo Methot-wounded Bogie stops to incorporate Paul Henreid, mayhem ensues.

Director Daniel Henning inventively stages this curiosity. Designs are resourceful, particularly Jeremy Pivnick's customary ace lighting job and Warren Davis’ effective sound choices.

The central section in Lorre’s car, Rick Baumgartner and Erik Carabasi’s street projections whizzing away like the opening of “Sunset Boulevard,” is worth admission.

As morphine-addicted Lorre, Amir Levi most successfully hovers between imitation and evocation. Jason Paul Field wisely doesn’t replicate Bogart’s vocal attack -- an outright impression would be distracting -- and Jilon Van Over drolly approximates Austrian-born Henreid’s determination to be an American heartthrob.

Yet a clash between black comedy and Industry commentary dilutes the impact.

There are some funny exchanges, and Tabnick’s imagined motivations -- Bogie coveting Errol Flynn's salary, Henreid hoping to supplant Bogie, Lorre yearning for the theater -- are intelligent.

Still, the net effect is of two different works  -- twisted sketch and sober character study -- battling for supremacy. As such, this entertaining but scarcely monstrous effort could stand a rewrite, if not full-length expansion.

“Something Truly Monstrous,” Blank Theatre at 2nd Stage Theatre, 6500 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood. 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Ends Nov. 8. $30. (323) 661-9827 or www.TheBlank.com. Running time: 1 hour, 25 minutes.

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