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This article by Simon Saltzman was prepared for the May 5, 2004
issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Broadway Review: `20th Century’
This "Twentieth Century" jumps the tracks so soon after it leaves the station that one is apt to be surprised that the scenery continues to indicate some forward motion in John Lee Beatty’s artful creation of the famous transcontinental train, its Pullman and club cars all a gleam in art-deco.
What a pity that it is not a particularly amusing sight watching the play’s unhappily paired stars Alec Baldwin and Anne Heche desperately try to keep apace with the madcap loco motion pressed upon them by director Walter Bobbie, as well as stay on top of the smart sassy show biz dialogue written by Ben Hecht and Charles Macarthur for their 1932 play (based on an earlier play "Napoleon of Broadway" by Charles Bruce Milholland) that has been presumably freshened up by adaptor Ken Ludwig. I’m guessing, but I suspect Ludwig has added a Jesus joke or two for topicality to spark a key plot device. You know almost from the outset that Ludwig and the stars are in over their heads.
Not so the impressive supporting cast numbering more than a dozen (considerably less than the original production) that give a decided lift to this otherwise labored Roundabout Theater production. It’s not that the leads don’t appear to be knocking themselves out trying to resurrect larger-than- life characters that could only have materialized during the 1930s and could only have mattered in comedies of that era.
Heche, in particular, finds some consolation in her slim-lined physical attractiveness but more in mugging and doing an imitation of an often unintelligible motor-mouthed Katherine Hepburn. This, while flinging her body about like Debbie Reynolds on speed. That she looks the part as well as utterly sensational in William Ivey Long’s breathtaking costumes doesn’t offset a performance that lands just this side of desperation. Chances are that director Bobbie had her pull all the stops out as a kind of life preserver to share with the lost-at-sea Baldwin.
Anyone who saw Baldwin’s dynamic Stanley Kowalski in "A Streetcar Named Desire" on Broadway, as well as in numerous lauded film roles knows that he is a formidable talent. So what is wrong? For starters, he appears bloated and lethargic and gives the appearance of being unable to make his body do more than make the necessary entrances and exits. Body language is half the battle and affords most of the fun in a screwball comedy like this, but Baldwin doesn’t seem able to let go.
The best Baldwin has to offer is a case of badly effected highfalutin diction that only compounds the inadequacies of his too too stolid performance. Neither Heche nor Baldwin seems able to empower their over-the-top characters with any real motivation beneath the surface, with Baldwin even lacking the necessary surface elan. Their concerted lack of chemistry wouldn’t suit the needs of a non-Equity bus and truck company. To understand this, watch John Barrymore and Carole Lombard in the 1934 Howard Hawks directed film version.
While the main plot is concerned with seeing to what lengths the flamboyant egotistical theater producer-director Oscar Jaffe (Baldwin) will go to get his ex-lover and discovery, now the glamorous self-absorbed Lily Garland (Heche) sign a contract to appear in his next play_still to be determined, the sub plots are more absurd than amusing. One involves Mathew Clark (Tom Aldredge), a religious fanatic lunatic who runs about the train posting "repent" stickers on every window. Even more strained and irrelevant is that other distraction caused by Dr. Grover Lockwood (Jonathan Walker), a philandering doctor who is having a Pullman car tryst with a married woman all the while attempting to peddle his own play to Jaffe about Joan of Arc. The joke being that Jaffe hasn’t yet recovered from his most recent debacle about Joan of Ark. Credit to Broadway pro Aldredge and Walker, for finding a comical vein to supply blood to their silly beyond words roles.
For the most part, the supporting actors are able to coordinate the play’s lurch and stop pace with their alternately frenetic and woebegone behavior with credibly stressed faces. They included the inimitable and always a joy to see Julie Halston, as Ida Webb, Jaffe’s business manager (originally played by a male); Stephen DeRosa, who doubles as a nutty bearded Passion Play actor and as Max Jacobs, a rival producer. Although his role doesn’t call for much else than appearing flummoxed, Ryan Shively fits the role of Lily’s agent cum boy toy like a banana in its skin.
The producers have already announced an extension. Go figure. If nothing else this revival makes one long for another ride "On the Twentieth Century," the exuberant and tuneful Cy Coleman/Comden and Green musical adaptation that got closer to the mark, but yet failed to recoup its cost after a year on Broadway in 1978. For the record, the train was called the Twentieth Century Limited. Limited is the key word for this production. Perhaps the best way to say "all aboard" for the "Twentieth Century," is still on late-night TV. HH
– Simon Saltzman
"Twentieth Century" (originally scheduled to play through June 6 now extended) A Roundabout Theater production at the American Airlines Theater 227 West 42nd Street For tickets ($46.25 to $86.25) call 212-719-1300 or www.roundabouttheatre.org
Princeton Rep Shakespeare Festival has interviews and auditions for the apprentice program (ages 18 and up) on Saturday, May 8, at 1 p.m. One Palmer Square, Suite 541. Website: www.princetonrep.org. Phone 609-921-3682.
Villagers Theater seeks actors for the TeensVill production of Les Miserables. Auditions for teenagers ages 13 to 18 are on Wednesday, May 12, 7 p.m., and Monday, May 17, 7 p.m.at 415 Demott Lane, Somerset. A separate audition will be held for children under 13 who are less than four feet tall for the roles of Young Cosette and Gavroche, on Saturday, May 22, 1 p.m. Call 732-873-2710 for information.
Stars In The Park’s seeks actors for OKLAHOMA! to be performed at the Open Air Theater at Washington Crossing Park in August. Auditions will be held Friday, May 21 from 6 to 9 p.m., and Saturday, May 22 from noon to 4 p.m. at Mercer County Community College. Call Lorraine Wargo at 609-530-0912 for an appointment. Some roles have been cast. The director is Diane Wargo with musical direction by Nancy Snyder.
The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey is accepting applications for acting apprenticeships and non-acting internships, programs designed for young adults ages 18 and older. Both are part of the Theatre’s Summer Professional Training Program, now in its 14th year, which gives opportunities to aspiring actors, young theatre technicians, and future arts administrators, to develop their skills under the auspices of a regional theatre. The program runs from May 30 through August 16. The application deadline is May 14. Call 973-408-3806.
The Arts Council of Princeton is calling for submissions for its 2004-05 gallery year. The gallery committee meets in June to review and select artists for exhibitions for the upcoming year. Each artist should submit slides or a CD of work to be displayed, a resume, and a short proposal for their show. The deadline for submissions is Monday, June 7. For information, call 609-924-8777 or visit: www.artscouncilofprinceton.org.
South Brunswick Arts Commission seeks township artists for studio tours on Saturday, June 5, from 1 to 5 p.m. Call 732-329-4000 ext. 635. Deadline is Friday, May 14.
West Windsor Township Police Honor Guard requests your tattered, torn, faded, and unserviceable American flags. A proper retirement will be held for them during the Flag Day Ceremony on June 14. Please bring them to the police station at Clarksville Road. Call Patrolman Matt Kemp at 609-799-1222 for questions.
Middlesex County 4-H seeks adult volunteers for their small animal club to help kids learn about rabbits, guinea pigs, snakes, and turtles. Call 732-745-3446 for information.
55-Plus presents Philly Phling to National Constitution Center and Philadelphia Museum of Art. Thursday, May 27, 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. $65. Register with Samuel Goldfarb at 609-924-2008.
First Trenton Film Festival seeks volunteers for the May 7 to 9 event in downtown Trenton. Benefits include free tickets to screenings. Call 609-396-6966.
The Arts Council of Princeton is now registering for summer camp for ages 4 to 12, Classes are in the visual and dramatic arts. Call 609-924-8777 or visit www.artscouncilofprinceton.org.
American Red Cross of Central New Jersey seeks young people for the World Youth Leadership and Activism Conference. For information www.njredcross.org or call 609-951-2123. $575 includes book and board, CPR and emergency response training from August 8 to 14 at Rutgers University.
Montessori Corner Schools is accepting registration for summer camp and for the 2004-2005 school year for children 18 months to 9 years-old. Call 609-799-7990.
New Jersey Association of Realtors seeks entries in the second annual Poster Calendar Contest for students in grades three to six. One theme is "What Equal Opportunity Housing Means to Me." Www.njar.com.
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