Signature Theater a.d. Eric Schaeffer opens his new season with a highly campy version of 1930s comedy “Twentieth Century,” adapted by D.C.’s own Ken Ludwig. A separate staging of Ludwig’s adaptation is slated to open in March on Broadway, starring Alec Baldwin, courtesy of the Roundabout Theater Co.
Ludwig has pared down the Ben Hecht-Charles MacArthur farce, reducing the number of characters from 30 to 13 (four played by the irrepressible Rick Hammerly). He also has spruced up most of the dialogue while staying true to the genre. The storyline still rides on one day’s misadventures aboard the storied Chi-to-Gotham train, where pompous theater producer Oscar Jaffe contrives to lure film star Lily Garland back to the stage amid a carful of rogues and foils.
Schaeffer’s direction gives new meaning to the word “unrestrained.” Characters skulk, steal, flounce and dash about, gesticulating with majestic flourish like refugees from the silent-film era. So incessant are the histrionics that one wonders, early on, how far over the top these folks plan to ride this warhorse. Answer: To the moon, baby.
Despite all the busy antics, what may have been seen as a sparkling, witty diversion in the ’30s clearly registers today as a so-so museum piece. The contrivances and characterizations offer mild amusement, but quickly wear thin as the one-dimensional characters become more predictable and stock farcical business grows tiresome.
The play strives doggedly to amuse, relying on dated double entendres and butchered cliches. “The idea came at me like a bolt of cloth from the blue,” opines one character in a typical side-splitter.
Schaeffer has cast Broadway vet James Barbour and popular local performer Holly Twyford in the principal roles, and they maximize their opportunities. Barbour is every inch the clueless jackass, bellowing and gesturing for the masses. Twyford, in her golden wig, plays the pampered and demanding film goddess to the hilt, always eager to browbeat her suffering manager and companion (Will Gartshore).
Among the supporting cast, the busiest performer is quick-change artist Hammerly, whose roles include porter, detective and producer Max Jacobs. Other characters retained from the original are the adulterous colleagues (Rachel Gardner and Thomas Adrian Simpson) and Jaffe’s two opportunistic assistants, the inebriated Irishman Owen O’Malley (Christopher Bloch) and publicist Oliver Webb (Harry A. Winter). Frederick Strother plays the ever-patient conductor.
Set designer James Kronzer has devised a most luxurious Pullman car that moves backwards and forwards to showcase the frenetic action. Unfortunately, we aren’t headed for a very satisfying journey.