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Hearst Yacht Mystery Is the ‘Cat’s Meow’

Shrouded in mystery to this day, the death of silent-film mogul Thomas Ince aboard the yacht of William Randolph Hearst in 1924 is the stuff of sordid, glamour-encrusted Hollywood legend--and perfect ballast for a stylish and sardonically funny expose of corrupt Tinseltown values in “The Cat’s Meow” at the Coast Playhouse.

Buoyed by superb staging and fine performances from a large cast, Steven Peros’ black comedy has Ince (John C. Mooney) playing a perilous game with the omnipotent Hearst in an attempt to resuscitate his floundering career. Peros’ speculative account of Ince’s demise unfurls amid a star-studded ship’s complement that includes hilariously bumbling Louella Parsons (Nancy Cartwright), eloquent novelist and narrator Elinor Glyn (Pamela Gordon) and charismatic, scandal-plagued Charlie Chaplin (Joseph Fuqua) in hot pursuit of Hearst’s mistress, a strikingly strong-willed Marion Davies (Kim Bieber).

Ironically, the romantic triangle at the center of Peros’ theory drops anchor short of full development--more energy is spent fishing for historical trappings than for deeper motives. Albert Stratton’s Hearst--a kind of Ralph Kramden in silk pajamas--is an intriguing amalgam of neuroses, vulnerabilities and obsession with control, but less convincing as the consummate manipulator helming a cover-up.

Director Jenny Sullivan compensates with a palpable atmosphere of sophisticated decadence and full-steam momentum, typically alternating the action between three focal points in Bill Eigenbrodt’s ingeniously versatile art deco set. With its succession of dangerous shipboard liaisons, this is one piece that takes building an act to a climax very seriously indeed.

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* “The Cat’s Meow,” Coast Playhouse, 8325 Santa Monica Blvd., West Hollywood. Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 3 p.m. Dark Nov. 27. Ends Nov. 30. $18. (213) 660-8587. Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes.


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