A Trip From Start To Finish
Review by Shirley Gottlieb
Special to the Press-Telegram
TO FULLY appreciate "Twentieth Century," you must sit back, relax and imagine yourself in the giddy 1930s, a short period of hope and wild abandon that blossomed after the Great Depression and faded before the havoc of World War II.
That's when Charles MacArthur and Ben Hecht wrote this classic screwball stage play which they based on a little-known script by Charles Bruce Milholland.
The country was so ripe for this hilarious comedy, it was immediately transformed into a film starring the legendary John Barrymore and Carole Lombard, then revived again for Jose Ferrer and Gloria Swanson. With so much success behind it, could a musical be far behind? No. That musical left its mark on the Great White Way in 1974.
But the world has drastically changed since "Twentieth Century" was originally conceived, and the outdated dialogue (once considered crisp, sharp and daring) seemed stilted and stale.
Enter playwright Ken Ludwig, who, inspired by the play's classic features, adapted the comedy and language for contemporary sensibilities.
But the 1930s cockamamie characters remain the same as MacArthur/Hecht first envisioned them. And in the hands of skilled director Jules Aaron, this delightful International City Theatre production is a polished "trip" from start to finish.
All the zany action takes place on a cross-country journey aboard the luxurious train, the Twentieth Century Limited. There were no jet-set flights in the 1930s - everyone traveled by rail, dressed to the nines, with silk scarfs flying and eager porters at their elbow (terrific costumes by Shon LeBlanc).
What we have here is the age-old battle of the sexes between Oscar, an arrogant, egomaniacal Broadway director on his way down the ladder of fame and fortune, and Lilly, a high-strung, temperamental Hollywood diva - platinum blond, of course - at the top of her game.
Jeff Griggs must be channeling John Barrymore in his hysterical portrayal of Oscar, and Libby West is a double of the incomparable Barbara Stanwick in her performance of the hard-boiled Lilly. With a history of fighting like cats and dogs, these two phony characters are thrown together again, while the landscape flashes by from Chicago to New York. The fabulous set is designed by Tom Buderwitz, the lighting by J. Kent Inasy.
From the minute Oscar gets on the train, he connives to have Lilly star in his next great opus - an extravaganza about Mary Magdalene, perhaps, or a grandiose passion play complete with hooded monks, camels and elephants that is not yet written. But Lilly wants nothing to do with her former lover - a has-been who claims she owes her fame to him. Besides, she's traveling with her agent (Joe Sanfelippo), who is her latest Romeo.
Not only are the director and the actress a rip-roaring trip, everyone on the train is a trip, especially Oscar's strongman (Tom Shelton) and his heart-of-gold secretary (the marvelous Eileen T'Kaye), who tries to save him from himself.
Throw in the other kooky characters and nothing is sacred.
Bart Williams is an absolute riot as a soft-spoken religious fanatic who, after escaping from an insane asylum, causes havoc throughout the train.
Anthony Pellegrino plays a respectable doctor on a clandestine rendezvous with the wife of his best friend (Kerry Perdue); Andrew Kirsanov has an assortment of madcap roles that include Max the rival director and a bearded German monk; and Don Paul is the well-meaning conductor who is caught in the crazy whirlwind that engulfs everyone in its path including the audience.
Shirle Gottlieb is a Long Beach freelance writer