TheatreWorks' revival of 'Twentieth Century' tickles the funny bone!
By Karen D'Souza
All aboard. TheatreWorks is charging full speed ahead in a revival of the classic '30s screwball comedy "Twentieth Century."
Screenwriters Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur based the inimitable 1934 Howard Hawks' picture, starring John Barrymore and Carole Lombard, on a play by Charles Bruce Milholland. Now the giddy retro-farce comes full circle as TheatreWorks whisks us back to the days of starlets, slapstick and schmoes.
Apparently, in the midst of the Great Depression, people forked over hard-earned dough to feast their eyes on the lifestyles of the rich and famous. In a new adaptation by Ken ("Lend Me a Tenor") Ludwig, "Twentieth Century" once again sets out to tickle the funny bone with its celebration of bombshells and dopes. It's a sparkling champagne cocktail of a play, dahlings, that has aged well if not perfectly. While Robert Kelley's production may be a few bubbles short of intoxicating, the frothy farce still goes down easy.
The title comes from the name of the high-speed locomotive that once ferried the red-carpet set from Chicago to New York (in a mere 16 hours!). But it's the powerhouse cast that drives this train. Ten veteran Bay Area actors (from Dan Hiatt and Rebecca Dines to Gerald Hiken and Michael Gene Sullivan) keep the action purring along through rapid-fire banter, schticky spit takes and slamming doors.
Hiatt, an actor with elastic comic chops he showed off in the one-man "It's a Wonderful Life" at San Jose Repertory Theatre, plays the down-on-his-luck impresario Oscar Jaffe. His last big Broadway show crashed as hard as the stock market. Unless he can sign his former flame Lily Garland on the dotted line for his next project (a Ziegfeld-style epic with lions and camels and elephants, oh my) he's headed for the bread line.
The rub is that Garland (Dines) is now the toast of Hollywood, a platinum blond prima donna clutching an attitude as hard and shiny as her Oscar. While Hiatt and Dines don't generate enough chemistry to seem made for each other, they have great panache as purveyors of punch lines. It's a pleasure listening as the bon mots hit the fan. Dines also makes a superb shimmier in her steamy asides with Lily's boy toy agent (Geno Carvalho).
Speaking of sassy, Suzanne Grodner outdoes herself as Jaffe's hard-boiled assistant Ida, a droll dame with a ready comeback. Sullivan, best known for his work with the San Francisco Mime Troupe, mimes giggles galore as the hapless porter, the dorky German thespian and the clueless copper. The Tony-winning Hiken steals every scene he's in as the wide-eyed religious lunatic on the lam from the loony bin, slapping "Repent" stickers on all the heathens.
Still, Ludwig's glib wit lacks the bite that laces the great old movies, that irresistible mixture of moxie and schmaltz that made Barrymore and Lombard seem simultaneously larger than life and all too human. Indeed the dialogue here sometimes gets upstaged by the swanky production values.
Steven B. Mannshardt's gauzy lighting makes everyone look ready for their close-up. Fumiko Bielefeldt's sumptuous period gowns, especially Lily's come-hither finery, flow like wine. Andrea Bechert's set nails the glamour of the transcontinental railroad. It's an art deco fantasy land that's easy on the eyes.