Theater review: ‘The Twentieth-Century Way’ at Boston Court Performing Arts Center
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An obscure 1914 episode in Long Beach involving police entrapment of 31 homosexuals could easily have sufficed as the subject of a conventional historical drama, but it’s merely the jumping-off point for playwright Tom Jacobson’s trademark cerebral acrobatics in his new play, ‘The Twentieth-Century Way’ at Pasadena’s The Theatre@Boston Court.
Inspired by the bizarre fact that the sting operation was conceived and executed by a pair of out-of-work actors who marketed their services to law enforcement, this intricately-constructed two-hander is a much angrier play than fans of Jacobson’s previous works might expect -- even the jokes are laced with outrage.
Employing nudity and frank descriptions of taboo practices at the dawn of the previous century, the piece, under Michael Michetti’s precise staging, takes a physical and metaphysical plunge into sexuality, the nature of identity, and moral compromises made in the pursuit of ambition.
Robert Mammana and Will Bradley strike an existential opening note as two competing actors awaiting an audition for an unspecified role amid minimalist theatrical props (a costume rack, some chairs and a ghost light). Practitioners of opposing artistic styles (external technique versus Stanislavsky’s method), they engage in an ‘acting-off’ challenge, skillfully becoming more than a dozen characters from the Long Beach scandal (police, defendants and news reporters) and exploring the confluence of period elements (from cross-dressing parties to advances in hygiene to the invention of the zipper) that spawned the newly minted crime of ‘social vagrancy.’
Unlike previous witty confections in which Jacobson mixed easily-recognized historical and literary figures (‘Bunbury,’ ‘Tainted Blood’), the unfamiliar characters and stories are far harder to keep track of in this intricate jumble of overlapping scenes and roles. Further complexity results when the thespians-turned-vice cops break character with meta-theatrical criticism of each other’s motivation and acting technique.
As the actors try to assert an increasingly tenuous separation between the practice of their craft and any responsibility for the tragic consequences they unleash with it, the play’s tension between cleverness and feeling gives way to a striking plea for authenticity that transcends the usual boundaries of stage reality.
– Philip Brandes
‘The Twentieth-Century Way,’ Boston Court Performing Arts Center Main Stage, 70 N. Mentor Avenue, Pasadena. 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays (and Wednesday, May 26), 2 p.m. Sundays (dark May 30) Ends June 6. $32. (626) 683-6883 or www.bostoncourt.org. Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes.