Ida and Owen (Suzanne Grodner and Bob Greene) observe as Oscar Jaffe (Dan Hiatt) feigns illness in the arms of Lily Garland (Rebecca Dines) in TheatreWorks' "Twentieth Century."
Photo by Mark Kitaoka


'Twentieth Century' a timely screwball comedy

Robert Hurwitt
San Francisco Chronicle

If a screwball comedy is the perfect escape when the economy goes south, what could be more fitting than a revival of a smash hit farce that greeted Franklin Delano Roosevelt's presidency, just in time for the inauguration of the man we hope can stave off the next depression? On that principle, TheatreWorks' production of "Twentieth Century," which opened Saturday at Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, is a welcome diversion in troubled but hopeful times.

It's fast. It's funny. It's an Art Deco feast for the eyes. More than a dusted-off classic, it's a prototype of backstage screwball comedies reconfigured for our times.

Which is to say, this is not the 1932 Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur Broadway hit. Nor is it the '34 movie that starred John Barrymore as the stage impresario trying to rebound from a string of flops by seducing his no-less theatrical film star ex-lover (the role that launched Carole Lombard) into doing his next play. This is the regional premiere of the 2003 adaptation by farceur Ken Ludwig ("Lend Me a Tenor").

It's a backstage comedy stuffed into two cars of a train, the Twentieth Century Limited speeding from Chicago to New York. That gives Dan Hiatt's delightfully melodramatic producer, Oscar Jaffe, 16 hours not only to con his former star, Lily Garland (Rebecca Dines), into appearing in his play but to figure out what that play is. Hindering him, often by trying to help, are a number of fellow passengers (greatly reduced from the original), ranging from his chief assistants and a rival producer to a religious nut, a stagestruck doctor and Lily's jealously protective current boy toy (Geno Carvalho).

Ludwig's adaptation has some awkwardly devised moments, but it's packed with comic caricatures, sharp one-liners and refreshing sexual frankness. Robert Kelley's crisp stagings make terrific use of the design elements to underscore the theatricality - and not just in the way Andrea Bechert's sleek, plush lounge cars seem to slip out of a depot or Fumiko Bielefeldt's sensuous silk Deco gowns proclaim Lily's stardom. Note how Steven B. Mannshardt's lights take on a golden glow as Oscar describes how Lily will look onstage.

A strong ensemble fills the show with well-etched characters, from Jackson Davis and Ayla Yarkut's illicit lovers to Michael Gene Sullivan as a one-man supporting cast in cameo roles. Gerald Hiken brings an impish delight to his mischief-making as the devious but sincere religious fanatic. Suzanne Grodner plays Oscar's personal manager with the smart, tart, brittle edge of a classic Hollywood screwball comedy dame.

At its heart, though, "Century" is Oscar and Lily's story, and Hiatt and Dines deliver beautifully matched oversize personalities. Plotting, enthusing or sulking in his posh dressing gowns, Hiatt commands the space with a practiced staginess that clashes and meshes perfectly with Dines' strategic and impulsive Hollywood diva histrionics. If he brings down the house with a tour de force account of the Christ story as a vehicle for her Mary Magdalene, it won't be long before she'll match it with one of her own.

There's never any doubt that this Oscar and Lily are made for each other as the play slips deviously into a resolution in which just about everybody comes out on top. Which is one good reason why comedies like this do so well in unsettling times like these.

Twentieth Century: Adapted by Ken Ludwig from the play by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur. Based on a play by Charles Bruce Milholland. Directed by Robert Kelley. With Dan Hiatt, Rebecca Dines, Gerald Hiken, Suzanne Grodner, Bob Greene et al. (Through Feb. 8. TheatreWorks at Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts.)

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