Seventy-FIVE of us sit on the west side of the elegant, sun-dappled living room at Greystone, a 1928 mansion that’s part of a Beverly Hills city park. A white-haired butler in black tie emerges from the hallway and begins intoning the sorrowful story of the famous family that once lived here.
As he speaks, the characters in his saga emerge from the wings, moving like imprisoned spirits before they are temporarily liberated for yet another energetic re-enactment of the events that led up to the sensational murder that took place in this house in 1929.
We’re at “The Manor,” the Kathrine Bates play inspired by the turbulent story of the Doheny family at Greystone, and the interactive production is unfolding within the mansion’s walls. The audience moves from room to room, guided by the servants, to see actors re-enact conversations and events that evoke Greystone’s most troubled era.
Names have been changed -- the oil-rich Dohenys replaced by the mining-rich MacAlister clan. But in both the real and the fictional scenarios, the patriarch was caught up in a national scandal involving the leasing of government-owned resources. His son was the courier who delivered a $100,000 cash loan that was later interpreted as a bribe. Later, the son and a friend were found shot to death in the Greystone house, which had been a gift from the father to the son and his young family.
“The Manor” was hatched in a conversation in 2000 between Theatre 40 managing director David Hunt Stafford and Henry Korn, who was the Beverly Hills director of arts and culture. Korn suggested using Greystone for a production about the Dohenys. He was inspired, he says, by the “living history” concept exemplified by Colonial Williamsburg.
Theatre 40 company member Bates did the research and produced a treatment within two weeks. Korn liked it but was laid off before he could pursue it. However, Theatre 40 was using Greystone for readings, and after the 2001 readings series ended, Stafford revived the idea of the play with the Beverly Hills Recreation and Parks Department.
Theatre 40 received a green light for several performances last summer. But they weren’t widely publicized, for the city wanted Beverly Hills residents to have the first crack at obtaining tickets. When performances resumed this year, however, reviewers were invited, and they liked what they saw.
Theatre 40 was denied permission to use the Doheny name. But Bates -- who also plays the older Mrs. Doheny -- says her script is “a loving portrayal.” Questions linger about exactly what happened when Ned Doheny and his friend Hugh Plunkett died at Greystone. Bates says she has “come up with the most politically safe way of coping with the tragedy.”
Bates says she has empathy for the Doheny descendants. Her father, Joaquin Esteves, who was a broadcasting personality in the San Jose area, disappeared in 1988 at the age of 64. Although a man was convicted of his murder, no body was found and there was no confession.
Besides the killing, the script also explores the fictional family’s involvement in a scandal like Teapot Dome. “I have an interest in historical figures who were maligned,” she says. Her 1998 solo show, “Evil Legacy,” tried to vindicate Lucrezia Borgia.
Although Bates says her script avoids tabloid territory, she acknowledged that it does enter “soap opera territory.” Bates played Loretta Toscano on “Days of Our Lives.”
“This family had the world at its feet,” she said. “This great brooding house should have been their home for generations. Instead, they were left with this big cloud over their days of glory.”
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Behind the mystery
“The Manor” was inspired by the story of the Doheny family, although the fictional version differs from the historical one. A few facts about the real story.
The background: Edward L. Doheny drilled the first free-flowing oil well in Los Angeles and parlayed the proceeds into a fortune. He built a lavish home in L.A.'s West Adams neighborhood and began training his son Ned to take over the family business.
The double deal: In November 1921, Doheny’s Pan American Petroleum company placed a bid on a federal project to build oil storage facilities at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii in exchange for the right to tap some of the Navy’s oil reserves in Kern County. The Harding administration had placed the decision on this case in the hands of the Interior Department. Almost simultaneously, Doheny dispatched Ned and his friend Hugh Plunkett to deliver $100,000 in cash as a loan to Interior Secretary Albert Fall, an old friend of Doheny’s.
The scandal: Doheny was awarded the contract. But the project later became embroiled in the Teapot Dome scandal, so named for a similar lease of oil reserves near Teapot Dome, Wyo., to a different oil company. Fall was involved in both leases. The disclosure of Doheny’s loan didn’t help either man’s case. Doheny was acquitted of criminal charges, but he lost a civil case that went to the Supreme Court. Fall was imprisoned for nearly 10 months in 1931 and ’32.
The murder: Ned Doheny and Plunkett had been preparing to testify in one of the many court cases when both of the young men were shot to death at Ned’s home, Greystone, on Feb. 16, 1929. The district attorney ruled that Plunkett shot Doheny and then himself, but one of the detectives publicly challenged that finding.
More scoop: A detailed source on the Dohenys is “Dark Side of Fortune,” by Margaret Leslie Davis (University of California Press, 1998).
Where: Greystone, 905 Loma Vista Drive, Beverly Hills
When: Sunday, April 5-6, May 3 and 24, June 8, 1 p.m. Probably will be extended. The show runs 2 hours, 55 minutes.
Info: (310) 550-4796