Despite the title, wealthy New Yorker Harry Thaw did not necessarily hate everybody – but he certainly hated the equally high-rolling Manhattan architect Stanford White, a rival for the affections of Thaw’s wife, Evelyn Nesbit.
In fact, Thaw shot White dead as White was watching a play.
The true turn-of-the-century murder was described in novelist E.L. Doctorow’s “Ragtime,” in which Evelyn is a minor character. In Los Angeles playwright Laural Meade’s buoyant “Harry Thaw Hates Everybody,” Evelyn is the main character.
And in Shotgun Players’ wildly imaginative and polished production, directed by M. Graham Smith, the re-examined case, presented from four different perspectives, is funny and engaging.
It’s also metatheatrical, occasionally anachronistic, involves some carefully calibrated audience interaction and has a spiffy, Gilded Age set (by Maya Linke).
Evelyn, her mother, White and Thaw appear in the afterlife. Each one, eager to be perceived as innocent, presents a self-serving view of the way things happened.
Evelyn, played with blithe charm by Rosie Hallett, introduces the action and has the last word.
White (a wonderfully smug and jovial Steven Hess) is first up with the story of how he met mother and daughter, both newly arrived, poverty-stricken, in New York. Avaricious and narcissistic, he presents his case in the form of a vaudeville revue, starting with a musical ode to himself. (The many delightful songs are from the era; for some, original melodies were added.)
Mother (a strong, nuanced portrayal by Carla Pantoja) chooses a “living newspaper” approach, with headlines projected on a screen (video design by Micah Steiglitz). By now, Evelyn is White’s mistress, and wooed by the apparently deranged Thaw. Mom eagerly accepts money and gifts from both men.
Thaw (played by Keith Pinto at a one-note, too feverishly maniacal pitch throughout) offers a mock trial to prove his innocence, complete with absurdly hilarious interpretive dance and off-key song.
Evelyn’s ambiguous viewpoint plays out in a surreal scenario, like a drug-induced dream. Did she truly love White, the sugar daddy who deflowered her at 16? Why did she marry the abusive Thaw? Was she in some way complicit in White’s murder? We’re having too much fun to care.
As a two silent servants, Will Dao and Michelle Drexler are terrific, as is music director Dolores Duran-Cefalu, pounding out ragtime at the piano.
Meade’s witty play highlights the disparity between rich and poor in a way that resonates today. But mostly it’s just sheer, beautifully staged entertainment.
Harry Thaw Hates Everybody
Presented by Shotgun Players
Where: Ashby Stage, 1901 Ashby Ave., Berkeley
When: 7 p.m. Wednesdays-Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays, 5 p.m. most Sundays; closes Nov. 23
Tickets: $20 to $30
Contact: (510) 841-6500, www.shotgunplayers.org