Punching Tix on the Slapstick Express

Revival succeeds with the same 1932 intent—diversion during national crisis

Long before television sitcoms co-opted silly plots, stock characters, and cheesy jokes, a whole class of plays served up predictable comedies that strove to do nothing but entertain.

Certainly, “Twentieth Century” by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, currently getting a delicious revival, is in this vein—perhaps archetypically so.

Skewering the over-the-top antics of egomaniacal show folk, dealing with every twist and turn of life as if it were epic drama, is a tried and true formula. In 1932, the play’s first production allowed the theatrical cognoscenti an unwaveringly amusing opportunity to sneer at movies as the tawdry artistic stepchild of the theater. (Pronounced with three syllables, please.) Add a couple of self-deprecating marquee names poking fun at their own stardom and some fabulous clothes and you’ve got the perfect mix for delightfully frivolous entertainment.

That’s certainly what you’ll find at the American Airlines Theatre in the current revival of “Twentieth Century” starring Alec Baldwin and Anne Heche. This show asks for nothing except a willing submission to silliness and insanity and, given Ken Ludwig’s new adaptation as well as Walter Bobbie’s breakneck direction, this gorgeous production featuring John Lee Beatty’s set and William Ivey Long’s costumes is a joy to surrender to.

The Twentieth Century Limited is a train that makes the trip from Chicago to New York in 16 hours. During that time, struggling theatrical producer Oscar Jaffe must convince his former protégé and lover-turned-screen siren, Lily Garland, to return to him as actress and lover. Only with Lily’s signature on a contract can Oscar hold off the bill collectors. Oscar and Lily are two towering figures spitefully fending off rightful assaults to their egos. With deceit, cajoling, manipulation, and innumerable “life or death” fabrications, Lily and Oscar spar while everyone around them gets caught in the crossfire until the story reaches its inevitable happy ending.

As Oscar, Baldwin is hilarious, playing the part with almost irrepressible glee and displaying an oleaginous charm. Heche flings herself (literally and figuratively) into the character, demonstrating both a knack for comic timing and a delightful flair for physical comedy. Together, the two exactly strike the notes of wretched excess needed to show glamour-obsessed “artistes” coming apart at the seams, only to pull themselves together flawlessly in time for the curtain.

The supporting cast is equally delightful, particularly Julie Halston as Ida Webb, Jaffe’s business manager, and Dan Butler as Owen O’Malley, Jaffe’s press rep. Together these two provide the “real world” perspective that counters Jaffe’s excesses, and though these are stock characters, Halston and Butler bring such charm and good humor to their parts, they are as much fun to watch as Baldwin and Heche. Also excellent are Jonathan Walker as Dr. Grover Lockwood, a doctor who has written a play and wants to meet Jaffe, and Tom Aldredge as Matthew Clark, a religious nut who convinces Jaffe to produce a play of Jesus Christ’s Passion.

The subplot, and pithy satire, about the Passion play is particularly timely, given all the current attention and money being hurled at Mel Gibson’s movie. Naturally, there is nothing new in mining the scriptures for theatrical material, nor any lack of people who will fall for it, chapter and verse. In 1932, playwrights Hecht and MacArthur were skewering the number of overblown religious productions that were common at the time. Of dubious theatrical quality, these projects made boffo box office hits, enough to convert anyone to the cause, though the irony rests in whether the conversion was to salvation or capitalism.

Now, with Gisbson’s “The Passion of the Christ” figuring so prominently in the media, and taken so seriously as a historical representation, it is perhaps more hilarious than, might it be otherwise to watch Oscar and Lily spout their total ignorance of history with grandiose theatrics. Or, more accurately, it’s a trenchant demonstration that, like sex, religion puts butts in seats. For example, at one point, Baldwin as Jaffe is reading aloud from the Bible about the Garden of Eden and the forbidden fruit. He stops, looks up, and says with total conviction, “They’re not writing dialogue like this anymore.” The line, and Baldwin’s delivery are priceless.

This is not subtle comedy, and all the other gags in the show come bearing down on you like, well, a train, but that doesn’t diminish the effervescent fun of this production. Once again—as has been the case so often lately—when it comes to first-rate revivals, Roundabout is right on track.

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