'Twentieth Century' is a riot on rails

'Twentieth Century' is a riot on rails
By Tom Titus, Daily Pilot

Everything old, as they say, is new again, as hilariously illustrated at the Newport Theater Arts Center, where the 1934 comedy "Twentieth Century" has been exhumed and presented at a pace that will exhaust 21st century audiences.

Habitual theatergoers will recognize a number of characters and situations from time gone by in Ken Ludwig's recent adaptation of the script by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur. Ludwig, who delights in such blasts to the past as "Moon Over Buffalo" and "Lend Me a Tenor," has transformed this vintage comedy into a rib tickling, if derivative, repast.

In "Twentieth Century" -- which is set aboard a train rumbling from Chicago to New York in 1933 -- there are elements of "Light Up the Sky," "The Man Who Came to Dinner" and, most blatantly, "Kiss Me, Kate" present and accounted for. The characters may be familiar, but they're immensely entertaining.
The twisting and turning plot is played out at breakneck speed under the imaginative direction of Beverly Turner, who gives nine of her 10 actors free reign at devouring the scenery, and they respond hungrily. Only the train conductor (Corey Sprague) has anything that might be labeled a straight role.
At the center of all this madness is brilliant but broke Broadway producer Oscar Jaffe (Skip Blas), who's on a mission to sign Hollywood diva and former lover Lily Garland (Susan E. Taylor) to a contract for his new project -- which he doesn't have at the moment, but which turns out to be a Broadway version of Germany's Passion Play (she would be Mary Magdalene).

Blas, channeling the spirit of the recently departed Howard Keel in "Kiss Me, Kate," prowls the stage with stealth and cunning, deploying his commanding presence and booming voice to accomplish his goals. But Taylor -- who glitters all over, including her sparkling eyes -- is a formidable opponent, juggling Blas, her fawning agent and present squeeze (Kyle Myers), and a rival producer also striving for her autograph on a contract (Lewis Leighton, playing four different characters).

Despite the ravenous appetites of the leading actors, there is plenty of red comedic meat to go around, and the supporting players attack it with a vengeance. Blas' two assistants (Mitchell Nunn, in a role right out of Damon Runyon, and Lee Anne Moore, approximating Thelma Ritter) turn their subservient assignments into show stealers.

Then there's the jittery doctor (Peter Stone) -- on an adulterous venture with his lady friend (Chelsea Camille) -- who also has a play for the producer's consideration (as in "The Man Who Came to Dinner") and pops in at the most inopportune moments. So, for that matter, does a religious nut (Reed Boyer) who plasters "repent" stickers throughout the train and who may have the wherewithal for Blas' Passion Play -- if the producer can do something about "that Magdelene character."

With a show so abounding in nuttiness, pace and timing are paramount, and Turner's troupe responds with zest and energy. It's not often that actors are licensed to ham it up at will, and these rarely miss a trick -- particularly Myers' jealous and jittery nebbish, who pushes the envelope, even in this production.

Turner also designed the Newport set, an art deco delight touched up by Andrew Otero and constructed by Eckmann Stage and Technical. The costumes, by David Temple, splendidly reflect the period -- especially the scarlet stunner worn by Taylor in the second act.

"Twentieth Century" may have seven decades of miles on its odometer, but Ludwig's new version is a streamlined vehicle, ideally suited for the talents of Newport's director and cast.

* TOM TITUS reviews local theater. His reviews run Fridays.


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