When Silent Was Golden

“The First Picture Show” at the Taper Forum resembles the early silent movies whose creators the play celebrates — sometimes fuzzy, sometimes jerky, but moving the action, and the audience, right along.

Billed as “a play with music, rather than a musical,” this world premiere production opens in Ohio before the turn of the century, where Anne Furstmann, a nice but restless Jewish girl, packs up and takes a train to Hollywood, the just emerging center of the amazing moving pictures.

Like hundreds of subsequent co-religionists, the new arrival changes her name to Anne First, and, true to her new name, becomes one of the first female producers and directors in the new medium.

Anne First is the creation of the play’s co-authors and directors Ain and David Gordon (“Shlemiel the First,” “The Family Business”), but she is co-mingled with some of Hollywood’s real women pioneers, such as Lois Weber, Gene Gauntier and Alice Guy Blache.

These women, among them dozens of talented screen writers, made their mark during Hollywood’s infancy and childhood, when anything seemed possible and “movies were an idea one week, before the camera the next, and in the theaters within a month.” Brooding auteurs like Stanley Kubrick wouldn’t have had a chance.

We’ve barely been introduced to actress Ellen Greene as the young, ambitious Anne First, when she reappears in 1995 as her own great-grand-niece Jane, who has reclaimed the old family name of Furstmann.

Jane has come to a retirement home for ancient movie folk to shoot a documentary on the now 99-year old Anne First (are you still with me?), played as a wonderfully cantankerous and wheel chair-bound crone by Estelle Parsons.

This plot ploy allows the play to conduct a tour of Hollywood’s entire history, from the days of “little studios where big things happened to big studios where little things happened,” as Anne puts it.”

With the help of Anne’s fellow retirement inmates, we learn about the rise and fall of “race movies,” by and for blacks only, the coming of expensive talking pictures that decimated the small independent studios, and the early appearance of the self-appointed censor — the Rev. Wilbur F. Crafts, a spiritual ancestor of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, proclaims that Hollywood must be wrested from “the hands of 500 un-Christian Jews.”

Much of the play’s enjoyment comes from the cleverly choreographed recreation of the silent pictures milieu, complete with title cards, portable picture frames, wildly gesticulating actors, and not one, but two, piano players.

With 14 actors essaying 46 characters, and with liberal swapping of ethnic and gender identities, there are moments when you’re not quite sure who’s on First, but the show’s energy surmounts the occasional bumps.

“The First Picture Show” continues through Sept. 18 at the Mark Taper Forum. For tickets and information, phone (213) 628- 2772.