"Twentieth Century" Gets 21st-Century Update

NEW YORK STAGE: "Twentieth Century" Gets 21st-Century Update
Roundabout Dusts Off 1932 Play, Invigorates It With A New Level Of Hilarity

March 26, 2004

NEW YORK -- In a brilliantly prescient stroke of timing, the Roundabout Theatre Company has resurrected "Twentieth Century," whose overbearing, self-dramatizing, sometimes martyr-like producer lures back a blazing Hollywood star with a promise to mount a grandiose version of "The Passion Play."

With a portly, pompous, bombastic Alec Baldwin as the nearly washed-up Broadway grandee and a tiny, flighty, ultra-actressy Anne Heche as the conceited and arrogant recent Oscar winner, this out-of-print comic collaboration between Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur overflows with a new farcical hilarity. The witty reworking of the script by Ken Ludwig ("Crazy for You," "Lend Me a Tenor") and the fast-paced knockabout direction by Walter Bobbie prove streamlined engines that drive the Roundabout's revival past even the 1932 play's recent musical revision, "On the Twentieth Century."

The Roundabout production, which opened Thursday night at the American Airlines Theatre on 42nd Street, boasts many classic comic attributes, including a rich religious zealot filled with mad fervor by Tom Aldredge and a pair of Broadway wisecrackers done with a sharp sense of the early '30s by the fireplug Dan Butler and the storkish Julie Halston.

But Baldwin and Heche detonate the chemical explosions as two battling egomaniacs, Oscar Jaffe and Lily Garland. With Mel Gibson's "The Passion of The Christ" performing miracles at movie box offices, Baldwin's tour de force as Oscar takes on new biting meaning as the great, high-minded but ill-informed impresario rhapsodizes about a grandiose spectacle with camels, lions, even an ibis while reinventing the story of Jesus and Mary Magdelene (the part dangled before the rolling eyes of the eager Lily). This is a wonderfully sustained send-up of benighted theater minds, whose religious beliefs and knowledge pale before their zest to build up a better story than any mere Bible could provide. Baldwin's eyes take on a messianic glow as Oscar gestures prophetically and declaims evangelically to a bedazzled Lily, whose earlier skepticism is swept away by a vision of a major role in "The Greatest Story Ever Told." Bobbie's revival begins on the sleek, Art Deco, deluxe passenger car designed by John Lee Beatty as a rolling ocean liner. The somewhat overstuffed Baldwin, extravagantly costumed by William Ivey Long in ambassadorial gear, including a pearl-gray waistcoat, somewhat overstuffed, puts his own profile on the part made famous by John Barrymore in the screwball comedy film version in 1934.

There is no mistaking his Oscar for Don Juan or Hamlet. Baldwin affects bullying postures and booms out pronouncements, yet his Oscar is also prissy at times, carefully patting his brilliantined hair into place. Because of his bulk, Baldwin also presents a striking contrast to Heche, whose sylph-like form gives new meaning to the old phrase "a piece of fluff."

There is nothing soft or wilting about this Lily, however, except in her theatrical poses. The former Mildred Plotka, gilded into Lily by her mentor and former lover, can be a brassy spitfire, who takes on the bearlike Oscar in a physical spat, climbing aboard his back and riding him like a brahma bull. Heche, dazzlingly costumed by Long, often displays striking body English, sometimes sexually suggestive, and shifts through various accents in an ultimate portrait of a role-playing robot who has lost track of who she really is.

This Lily uses Ryan Shively's George Smith, her Adonis-gigolo-agent, as a doormat/boy-toy, and generally plays the great lady with one and all. Chief among the other targets of the two sacred monsters of The Theater is Terry Beaver's suavely unflappable Conductor and a young doctor with a play in search of a producer, Jonathan Walker's puppyish, nervous Dr. Grover Lockwood. Walker and the adorable Kellie Overbey, as the runaway doctor's guilty secret, launch the production on a shaky note.

But Overbey later has a droll moment, when fending off Butler's boozy Owen, then warming to his whiskeyed smooches. Stephen DeRosa also has some amusing moments as a bearded, thickly accented, passive veteran Oberammergau Christus and the clean-visaged, aggressive Max Jacobs, another Jaffe protege who has succeeded on the Great White Way, even as the Olympian Thunderer's lightning bolts have fizzled.

Bobbie has whipped it all to a froth, as Beatty's setting tracks sidewalks to put emphasis on a drawing room and adjacent state rooms. But much credit must go to Ludwig, who has restructured three acts into two tight frames, eliminated subordinate characters and polished and embellished the dialogue. Hecht and MacArthur must be laughing from their luxury cabin in the sky at the prospect of the rebirth of their ride on the Twentieth Century, Limited no more.

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