The Time a White Couple Asked a Black Architect to Build an L.A. Nazi Compound
Regi Davis and Meredith Thomas in Blueprint for Paradise at the Hudson Mainstage Theatre
Photo by Ed Krieger
Blueprint for Paradise is reminiscent of those 1940s anti-Nazi films in which a superficially charming man with a German accent plots to infiltrate America — but at the last minute is thwarted by brave noble citizens and/or the FBI. (I can’t put my finger on the exact name of the film or films, only that recollections of such linger from my childhood.)
The thing is, Blueprint, written by Laurel M. Wetzork and staged by director Laura Steinroeder at the Hudson Mainstage, has a basis in fact. Although the characters and plot details are fictional, prime elements of the narrative — plans to build a compound and training facility for Nazi sympathizers in Pacific Palisades, from designs by African-American architect Paul Revere Williams — actually did transpire.
The play opens in 1941, pre-Pearl Harbor, in the Hancock Park living room of a comfortably well-off couple, Clara (Meredith Thomas) and Herbert (David Jahn) Taylor, whose servants include Fenny (Ann Hu) a Chinese maid, and Alex (Alex Best), an Italian chauffeur, fix-it man and all around gofer for his employers.
The pivotal Clara is a rather nervous and fragile person, who attends meetings of the National League of Mothers of America, which aims to keep America out of the war. Other than that she doesn’t do much; she’s a trophy wife, who’s brought to her marriage a considerable inheritance, which her husband controls. The other thing about Clara is that she suffers the ever-present loss of her only child, a son who died at 14.
While Clara tries to keep occupied, Herbert manages his business, with plans to expand it in collaboration with Herr Wolfgang Schreiber (Peter McGlynn), a representative of the German government and an acquaintance of Hitler (to whom the Taylors had been introduced on a prior visit to Germany). Herbert, an unapologetic racist, has secured a location for the compound, but it falls to Clara to find an architect after their original choice reneges. She suggests Williams, whose work she’s noted in magazines, unaware that he's black.
Steve Marvel, Meredith Thomas, David Jann and Peter McGlynn in Blueprint for Paradise at the Hudson Mainstage Theatre
Photo by Ed Krieger
The remainder of the drama unwinds through scenes in which the gentlemanly Williams (Regi Davis) conducts himself with courtesy and restraint while absorbing the backhanded insults and patronizing disrespect of these white people. When, however, he speaks of the death of his infant son, it strikes a chord with Clara, and the two gradually build a relationship founded on his kindness and her growing regard.
Most any play that sheds light on racism and the oppression of women gets my vote, and Blueprint for Paradise does both. The first act plods a bit, with Schreiber's villain and his home-grown Nazi sidekick Ludwig (Steve Marvel) coming off as somewhat clichéd. The marriage between Clara and Herbert as written is pretty stock as well. Act 2 is considerably snappier, but its climax, while ultimately satisfying (recall the charge you got when the good guys triumph in those old films?), registers as not-quite-credible Hollywood melodrama.
What makes the production really worth seeing is Thomas’s realization of a naïve and dutiful housewife who, rather like Nora in A Doll’s House, struggles with her lot until an illuminating epiphany grants her the will to choose otherwise. Really, Thomas does wonderful work. And Hu is enormously sympathetic as her open-hearted and faithful servant; the evolution of that relationship is one of the play’s finest threads.
Davis has a likable presence, but it’s as if all his energy is taken up in pretending to ignore the affronts of the others. There’s not much depth to his architect, who history tells us was a brilliant and remarkable man. Jahn is convincing as a wealthy bigot, a prime candidate for fascist recruitment, who also exemplifies male chauvinism at its privileged worst.
Considering that Williams is always praising Clara for her innate sense of design, Gary Lee Reed’s living room set could use spiffing up. Michael Mullen’s stylish period costumes for Clara are a major plus.
GO! Blueprint for Paradise, the Hudson Mainstage Theatre, 6539 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood; through Sep. 4. (323) 960-4412, blueprintforparadise.com.
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