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Reviews

Screwballs & Oddballs, The New Yorker

SCREWBALLS & ODDBALLS by JOHN LAHR
Comedy and collapse in “Twentieth Century” and “Well.”
Issue of 2004-04-05

By 1934, when Howard Hawks’s screwball comedy “Twentieth Century” was released, America had fallen victim to the twin catastrophes of the Depression and the Hays Office (the film industry’s watchdog agency, inaugurated in the late twenties to prevent any exposure of female breasts, suggestion of cohabitation, or unconventional kissing from taking place onscreen). While F.D.R. was pioneering new ways to combat economic austerity, the screenwriters Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, with their rapid-fire wisecracking wit, found a way around the erotic stringencies of the day by discovering a new erogenous zone: the ear. The sexy war of words around which their scripts were built opened up a new arena of competition, insinuation, and penetration. (The clamorous “His Girl Friday,” which was adapted from a Hecht-MacArthur play, clocked in at two hundred and forty words per minute, almost double the average speaking pace.) In the midst of social and financial fiasco, Hecht and MacArthur’s fast talk provided the republic with the hypnotic sound of potency. For both the characters and the public, the act of flamboyant self-assertion gave the illusion of coherence, courage, and clout.

“Twentieth Century” (in revival in a Roundabout Theatre Company production at the American Airlines) took its name from the deluxe, streamlined transcontinental train that epitomized the American delirium of momentum; in John Lee Beatty’s clever Art Deco set, Pullman cars sliding along the proscenium create the illusion of movement. Comedy, as Charlie Chaplin once observed, is all about entrances and exits; it’s a trick of the trade that Hecht and MacArthur were familiar with. Here, they spend fifteen minutes setting up the play’s comic stakes, before the clapped-out impresario Oscar Jaffe (Alec Baldwin) and his former lover and protégée, Lily Garland (Anne Heche), now an Academy Award-winning star, can begin to hilariously act out, from their adjacent railway couchettes, society’s battle between collapse and abundance. One of the first people on the train, at curtain rise, is a well-dressed old galoot who turns out to be a fundamentalist loony, Matthew Clark (the excellent, hatchet-faced Tom Aldredge); he scuttles through the cars plastering everything and everybody with stickers that read “Repent, for the time is at hand.” Although this plays as comic hokum, it shows, for those who have eyes to see, that the issue of redemption is the message in the bottle here. Jaffe needs Garland’s name to save his reputation and his assets; the histrionic Garland needs to be saved from herself. (“Oh, God, I’m so sick of myself,” she says in a surprising flash of self-awareness following a tantrum.) As with all fun-house entertainments, we know from the beginning what the outcome will be; it’s the clever maneuvering around the hurdles that makes the ride so thrilling.

In Walter Bobbie’s slick production, the leading roles have been superbly cast. Like their characters, Baldwin and Heche have lived out their own caprices in public; in addition to their wit and alertness as players, they bring to the stage their own legends, which lend a particular vividness to their characterizations and make for a rich theatrical chemistry. Baldwin and Heche are both a little larger than life, and they like it that way. “Fate and Weltschmertz lie behind the most accidental of the Jaffe utterances. He is an Actor,” the stage directions of this adaptation, by Ken Ludwig, explain. Baldwin, whose outspokenness on political issues has earned him the nickname the Bloviator in the right-wing press, knows all about the intoxication of public speaking; he milks Jaffe’s orotund outbursts to terrific effect. “Out! Out! Out! You traitor! I close the iron door on you!” he says, firing his hardboiled assistant, Ida Webb (the droll Julie Halston), who keeps raining on his imaginary parade by reminding him of the red ink on his books. Baldwin invests Jaffe with what Tennessee Williams called the “stiff-necked pride of the defeated.” Striding around his couchette in a purple smoking jacket and blue monogrammed slippers, he is a whirlwind of unrepentant pomposity, full of plans, memos, and dreams, whose vulgar grandiosity trumps their stupidity. “So you thought I was through, eh? Well, let me tell you something. That is when I’m at my best, my girl,” he tells Webb, as his brain pinwheels with possibilities. “Ibsen,” he barks at one point. “Find out if he’s alive.” When a German actor with the Oberammergau Players appears—“I am der Christus,” the actor says, extending his arms and tilting his head toward his chest—Jaffe hits upon the most craven, meretricious, and sensational idea of his career: he’ll stage the Passion of Christ with Garland as Mary Magdalene. “Who wrote it?” Garland asks, when Jaffe finally pitches her. “God wrote it,” he pronounces.

Baldwin and Heche have a strong comic silhouette: he is beefy and bowwow; she is bony and bitchy. At one point, enraged by Jaffe’s reminder that she was once a shopgirl called Mildred Plotka, Garland throws her petite frame at him and rides him wildly like a puppet on a pony. Heche may not have the soft and pliant outline of the motor-mouthed thirties babes, but she’s their equal in blond impudence. She couldn’t give a flying fuck at a rolling doughnut, which makes her dangerous onstage and riveting to watch. “I despise money. I despise all those trappings, those baubles, those symbols of emptiness,” Garland lies to her boy-toy agent, George (Ryan Shively), as porters lug bag after bag into her compartment. Garland may be self-invented, but she’s self-supporting, too; she speaks with the authority of financial independence. When George later calls her honesty and honor into question, Garland answers him with the star’s belligerent credo: she is, she says, “a first-class passenger entitled to privileges.” The play doesn’t mock the self-aggrandizing individualism that Garland shares with Jaffe; in fact, in the true spirit of Broadway commerce the show engineers its triumph. Along the way, however, it has good fun teasing Jaffe and Garland for their greed. “We don’t know anything about love, do we,” Garland admits to Jaffe in a rare moment of self-reflection, “unless it’s written and rehearsed. We’re only real between curtains.” This commitment to survival at any price made these characters heroic fantasy figures in their time; in ours, it makes them haunting lost souls.

It is a comforting law of boulevard farce that whenever the world is turned upside down it will eventually be returned to the status quo. By the end of “Twentieth Century,” for instance, Jaffe has his star, his production, and his name back in lights. In life, however, things don’t always get better. Lisa Kron’s cunningly written and compelling “Well” (at the Public) is a Pirandello-like examination of chronic illness. (It also deftly sends up the narrative limitations and selfinvolvement of most one-person shows.) Kron describes “Well” as “a solo show with some other people in it.” One of those other people is her sick, obese, complaining but beloved mother, Ann (the superb Jayne Houdeyshell), whom she both berates and allows to hijack the play. “My mother is a fantastically energetic person trapped in an utterly exhausted body,” she says of Ann, who attributes her “inability to move, to physically cope, to stay awake” to her allergies. Kron, who had a sickly, allergyridden childhood herself but recovered as an adult, is furious that her mother will not get well. She believes in change. (“I escaped to the land of the healthy people,” she says, “the people who have chosen strength and health and sex and attractive clothes and organic foods and Target over Kmart.”) And she refuses to accept that sometimes people can be wounded beyond repair. She engineers a face-off with her mother in which anger is dramatized as a form of hope.

Perhaps because she feels guilty for cannibalizing her past, Kron tends to allow her characters to get the best of her. They protest her scenes, join forces with her mother, and sometimes even attack her. “I can’t believe I’m getting beat up in my own play,” she says when a vagrant memory of a fifth-grade school bully suddenly materializes. But the trope of the interfering character is best practiced here by Houdeyshell, who, beneath her shambolic exterior, manages to convey a sharp intelligence and an informed heart. “You get out of that . . . special . . . light and stay here and deal with me,” she tells her daughter.

The other characters’ disagreements with Kron’s authorial voice lend a sense of both modesty and accuracy to her personal history. Kron grew up Jewish in an integrated community in Lansing, Michigan, that was largely organized by her mother; and she lets a passage from one of her mother’s speeches end the play and respond to her contentious ambivalence. “This is what integration means,” Ann writes. “It means weaving into the whole even the parts that are uncomfortable or don’t seem to fit. Even the parts that are complicated and painful.” “Well” is an exercise in another kind of integration—emotional integration. Among the many things that the play demonstrates about the theatre, about American life, and about Kron’s particular struggle, its most powerful and affecting display is of a daughter’s love.

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