AISLE SAY San Francisco


by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur
Adapted by Ken Ludwig
Directed by Robert Kelley
Presented by TheatreWorks
At the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts
500 Castro St., Mountain View, CA / (650) 903-6000

Reviewed by Judy Richter

It may be set in the midst of the Great Depression, but there's nothing depressing about "Twentieth Century." TheatreWorks' staging of Ken Ludwig's recent adaptation of this screwball comedy by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur is a blend of hilarity paired with terrific acting and production values. Artistic director Robert Kelley engineers this tale of a Broadway producer, Oscar Jaffe (Dan Hiatt), trying to revive his sagging career after three flops. Not only does he need a good play, he also needs a big name to star in it -- a name like that of his former girlfriend, the glamorous Lily Garland (Rebecca Dines). Lily has cashed in on her successes in Oscar's shows by leaving him and starring in Hollywood movies.He takes his campaign to the Twentieth Century, the famed streamliner on its way to New York, and manages to get the compartment adjoining hers.

Thus he sets up a comedic clash of oversized egos between himself and Lily, who's on board with her boy-toy agent, George Smith (Geno Carvalho). Oscar is alternately aided and kept in check by his general manager, Ida Webb (Suzanne Grodner), and his agent Owen O'Malley (Bob Greene), both of whom have far more grounded and cynical views of show biz than either Oscar or Lily.

Oscar's efforts to lure Lily back into his entrepreneurial fold stem in large part on his ability to appeal to her vanity by offering to have her play Mary Magdalene in the Oberammergau Passion play. The scene in which Hiatt's Oscar tells Dines' Lily how he imagines her playing the role is a classic of comedy. In fact, both he and Dines are hilarious in their battle of the sexes, a battle in the tradition of Kate and Petruchio or Beatrice and Benedick. It takes skilled actors like Hiatt and Dines, along with wise directors like Kelley, to keep the laughter rolling along without derailing. They succeed beautifully.

The supporting cast also is solid, especially Grodner and Greene as Oscar's long-suffering staffers. Another standout is Gerry Hiken as Matthew Clark, a sweet old man who secretly applies "Repent" stickers throughout the train and who writes a check to back Oscar's Passion play effort. The twist is that he has escaped from an asylum and is to be arrested in Toledo. Edward Sarafian plays the efficient conductor, while Jackson Davis plays a married doctor, Grover Lockwood, trying to engage in a tryst with his paramour, Anita Highland (Ayla Yarkut). Michael Gene Sullivan plays several roles, chiefly the porter, the bearded man from the Oberammergau troupe and Max Jacobs, Oscar's arch-rival.

Andrea Bechert's rail-car set captures the Art Deco glamour of the era's trains. Besides complementing the sets and actors, lighting designer Steven B. Mannshardt helps to create a sense of rail travel with tiny lights streaming past the windows just like the small towns along the route. Cliff Caruthers' sound design also evokes the experience. Fumiko Bielefeldt's costumes perfectly capture both the times and the characters. She's at her best with the glamorous outfits that adorn Dines.

It's somewhat apt that "Twentieth Century" opened on the weekend when President-elect Barack Obama and Vice President-elect Joe Biden boarded a passenger train to travel to Washington for their inauguration. In so doing, they harked back to a nostalgic time when passenger trains were the only way to traverse the country. "Twentieth Century" harks back to an era when glitterati enjoyed luxurious accommodations. It also delivers a trainload of laughs for the audience.

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