Homosexual history is suddenly out of the theatrical closet, its dozens of timely untold stories itching to be dramatized. Jon Marans’ “The Temperamentals” described the 1950s birth of the gay rights movement, and now Tom Jacobson’s “The Twentieth-Century Way,” exposing an officially sanctioned malesex entrapment ring in 1914, explains why the movement was necessary. Yet Jacobson is after even bigger game, wrapping his tale in a Pirandellian conceit to forge a link to our own day. Accept that convention or not, it’s scintillatingly performed at the Theater@Boston Court.
The city fathers of Long Beach, Calif., accepted the offer of Warren (Robert Mammana) and Brown (Will Bradley) to clean up their town, leading to a couple of dozen arrests for “social vagrancy” and the criminalization of oral sex, which became known as “the twentieth-century way” thanks to the simultaneous development of public sanitation and that newfangled invention, the zipper.
Intrigued by the motives of such unlikely entrepreneurs, Jacobson proposes Brown and Warren as would-be actors seeking entree into the burgeoning film industry. As a result he sets the entire story in the context of an improv-style audition, during which the aspirants assume a dizzying variety of roles as they seek to outdo each other professionally, and jockey for position personally.
At times the format seems forced, yielding old thesp/young hotshot guff familiar from David Mamet’s “A Life in the Theater.” But hang in there, for the approach yields richer dividends than would a straightforward semidocumentary. As the men fall in and out of character — even by the end taking on the roles of “Mammana” and “Bradley” — Jacobson explores deeper questions inspired by these sad events, including the lengths to which a thesp will go to get cast, and the blurring of identity between actor and role.
Helmer Michael Michetti steers the connections between 1914 and today with a sure hand, having chosen actors who are both perfectly in period and consummate shape-shifters. Bradley possesses the more supple vocal instrument, while Mammana provides the most indelible portrait: Florist Herbert Lowe’s meek affect and Oscar Wilde-ian green carnation never disguise his steely self-esteem, a characteristic destined to prove invaluable in the torturous march to the Mattachine Society and the liberation of Stonewall.
Production is scheduled to play the New York Intl. Fringe Fest in August.