Wednesday, April 28, 2004

Broadway blog.

The play I saw was Twentieth Century, at the American Airlines Theater, New York, 8 p.m., April 21, 2004. My sources for the following, besides my own eyes and critical judgment, include the issue of Playbill that I picked up at this performance, the imdb, and assorted other references, on line and on paper.

The theater. It's a nice little theater, neither too spare nor overly ornate. It turns out that, as a condition of providing the dosh to renovate it, American Airlines got to name the theater after itself. The deal was done in the mid- to late 1990s, during the most recent golden age of business travel, when AA apparently felt that a theater name on 42nd St. would be a good investment. I'm fairly sure that now such a project would die stillborn on some VP's desk.

For 80+ years before it reopened in 2000, it was the Selwyn, named after Archie and Edgar Selwyn. A modest amount of research reveals that besides developing a couple of theaters in the 1910s (there was another in downtown Chicago), at least Edgar was a writer, director and producer in early Hollywood. Among other things, he directed the obscure Turn Back the Clock (1933), which he wrote with Ben Hecht (more about which later). It may only be remembered now for an uncredited cameo by Ted Healy and the Three Stooges.

The play. Twentieth Century is a farce, set in late 1938 almost completely on the train of that name, which used to run between Chicago and New York. The story revolves around a bankrupt Broadway producer's underhanded efforts to re-sign an actress who used to work for him, and who used to be his lover, but has now hit it big in Hollywood. Hilarity ensues. Actually, it wasn't usually knock-down, out-loud funny like, say, Noises Off, but it was funny enough, with a steady stream of amusing situations and good lines.

The production, by the Roundabout Theater Company, is a revival of the original 1930s play by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, former Chicago newspaper men who went on to success writing for Broadway and the movies. Their best-known collaboration is The Front Page. A chance to see a Hecht-MacArthur play was what really caught my attention when I was looking for something to see on Broadway.

Special commendation to the production's set designer, John Lee Beatty. He managed to create a decent illusion that the stage-set train was actually moving.

The actors. I had to think hard about which of Alec Baldwin's movies I'd seen. I had to look it up, ultimately: Glengarry Glen Ross and The Hunt for Red October. His face was thus familiar, but not too familiar. His character, the bankrupt producer, was bombastic, pompous, scheming, and deceptive, but also charming and smitten with the lead female character, so you had some sympathy for him. Baldwin did it well. The lead woman is also known in the movies, but I didn't know her: Anne Heche. Her part was a caricature of a vain and not-very-bright movie star, but she wasn't entirely unsympathetic either, and Heche did well with it too.

Dan Butler was in this. For days I wondered, where have I seen him? Playbill informed me that he's a regular on Frasier. Then it dawned on me: he plays Bulldog Briscoe, the abrasive sports radio talk show host. His character in Twentieth Century wasn't too different, except that he was a comic Irishman, a lackey of the bankrupt producer.

Looking at the Playbill notes for all the actors, one other thing strikes me. Nearly all of them claim appearances in one or more of the Law & Order franchises. Those shows seem to provide a lot of work for actors, but it stands to reason -- the stories involve a steady stream of perps, victims and witnesses.


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