Chug, chug, hiss, hiss. John Lee Beatty's gleaming deco set slides back and forth across the stage of the American Airlines Theater, niftily suggesting a train in motion. But the new Broadway revival of "Twentieth Century," Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur's 1932 comedy about showbiz shenanigans on the rails, never works up a head of steam.
Chug, chug, hiss, hiss. John Lee Beatty’s gleaming deco set slides back and forth across the stage of the American Airlines Theater, niftily suggesting a train in motion. But the new Broadway revival of “Twentieth Century,” Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s 1932 comedy about showbiz shenanigans on the rails, never works up a head of steam. The marquee stars, a miscast Alec Baldwin and a manic Anne Heche, are sorely mismatched, and Walter Bobbie’s staging of Ken Ludwig’s new adaptation is alternately limp and labored. All aboard for boredom.
The hit Broadway comedies from the 1930s, with their flamboyant characters and snappy dialogue, are tempting targets for resurrection. But comedy can lose its luster quickly, as styles evolve and tastes are refined — or, for that matter, coarsened. Much of the raillery in “Twentieth Century” now raises little more than an indulgent smile. Last season’s reprise of George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber’s “Dinner at Eight” wasn’t much more successful at reanimating characters and situations that have grown a little hackneyed with overexposure. And with the first-rate movie versions of most of these plays readily available on video or DVD, only truly outstanding or inventive reinterpretations of this frothy fare can truly make a case for their enduring appeal onstage.
The Roundabout’s production is a reinvention of sorts: In the interest of economizing, Ludwig has trimmed and reshaped the play to fit a cast of about a dozen — still hefty, of course, by today’s Broadway standard, but about half the number in the original. Can it be that a lot of good material got left on the platform in Chicago? Certainly the primary remaining subplots — one about a religious fanatic plastering the train with stickers exhorting patrons to repent, the other concerning a philandering doctor with secret playwriting ambitions — aren’t exactly solid-gold comedy nuggets.
But part of the appeal of the frantic comedies of the period was their anything-and-everything-for-a-laugh capaciousness: Keep the jokes and gags coming fast and furious, and if one doesn’t land, the next just might. Ludwig’s downsized version feels underpopulated; small-fry comic characters are asked to pick up too much slack. As a result, Bobbie’s cast — which includes seasoned comic performers like Julie Halston as Ida Webb, exasperated manager of Baldwin’s imperious producer Oscar Jaffe, and “Frasier’s” Dan Butler, as Jaffe’s tippling Irish press agent — strains to keep the antic plot in motion and the comic atmosphere on the boil. (For the record, Halston’s character was male in the original.) Only Stephen DeRosa, doubling as a goofy German actor and Jaffe’s rival Max Jacobs, is able to make the most of his comic opportunities without letting the effort show.
This might not be such a liability if the play’s central plot, about the desperate but proud Jaffe’s attempts to woo back to the stage his erstwhile lover, movie star Lily Garland (Heche), were enacted with sufficient style and panache. But Baldwin and Heche often seem to be annotating their characters rather than inhabiting them.
Baldwin, looking portly, is an awkward fit for the role of the pompous, flamboyant Jaffe, played in the Howard Hawks movie by John Barrymore (offering up a peerless morsel of self-parody). Baldwin is an earthy actor with a natural contemporary style, and his hoity-toity faux-British accent sounds more off-key than it should; rather than a self-invented theatrical grandee smoothly papering over his plebeian roots, he suggests Kelsey Grammer’s Frasier Crane, or a “Saturday Night Live” parody of a “Masterpiece Theater” host.
Heche proves to be a deft and adventurous comedienne, flailing her little limbs about with hilarious abandon as the histrionic Lily laments her endless persecution at the hands of former and current lovers. (Ryan Shively takes the bland role of chiseled current paramour and agent.) She looks grand in William Ivey Long’s swanky period duds and brings a daffy, reckless edge to Lily’s self-infatuated musings. But the performance is more a series of effects than a coherent whole, and Heche’s odd nasal purr is one of the chancier gambits: Too often she sounds like a chipmunk attempting a Katharine Hepburn impersonation.
Chemistry is key here: Our engagement in the comic frenzy surrounding Jaffe’s attempt to find a suitably enticing vehicle for Lily depends on an interest in seeing them reunited. Here that desire is never really ignited — Baldwin and Heche strike few sparks together. Granted, that’s not an easy task when most of their dialogue involves the exchange of vituperation, but there’s no submerged romantic charge underneath the warring words, as there certainly was in the movie, thanks to Carole Lombard’s sweet, luminous vulnerability. Neither Baldwin nor Heche is able to convince us there’s a heart beneath the layers of ham.