Here’s a question for all you history buffs out there. What two 20th Century inventions revolutionized gay men’s search for quick, anonymous sex with other men?


The inventions in question were indoor plumbing and the zipper.  Let me explain. You see, in the days before indoor plumbing, frequent bathing was nigh on impossible for the unwashed masses, thus making the act of fellatio malodorous at best. With indoor plumbing, however, came the possibility of a more agreeable fragrance down under, thereby making the common blowjob a quick and easy substitute for full-on sex between men. Indoor plumbing then led to the construction of public bathing facilities, which in turn led to horny men meeting in an environment where already a certain degree of undressing was required.  Still, the matter of a button-up fly remained a hindrance to a fast start-fast finish quickie, particularly if the need for rapid escape came up.  Enter the “separable fastener,” aka the zipper, invented around that time by a man named Gideon Sundback and so much faster than trouser buttons.

Thus was born “The Twentieth Century Way” of M2M hookups, a historical phenomenon explored by playwright Tom Jacobson in The Twentieth Century Way, now getting its World Premiere production at Pasadena’s Theatre @ Boston Court.

A brief return to early 20th Century history.

The rise in public restroom quickies soon became a concern for the protectors of public decency.  Still, a dilemma remained.  How exactly to arrest these “social deviants” with definitive proof of their wrongdoing? The Long Beach police department came up with an ingenious solution when, in 1914, they hired a pair of actors (H.W. Warren and B.C. Brown) to take turns enticing men to insert their male member through a hole in the partition separating two adjoining public restroom stalls, whereupon the Special Vice Officer in the adjoining stall would mark an X on the offending organ—in indelible ink. Give or take a Magic Marker, this manner of police entrapment became police departments’ Twentieth Century Way of waging war on sex in public places.

Jacobson has taken these local historical tidbits and concocted a fascinatingly twisted theatrical maze that only the author of the similarly complex Bunbury and Ouroboros could have confectioned.

The play is performed by a grand total of two actors (Will Bradley and Robert Mammana) playing all of The Twentieth Century Way’s twenty or so characters, including a pair of (possibly contemporary) actors auditioning for a role in a film or play. We don’t know the actors’ real names, at least not till the play’s final minutes. We know only that they have come dressed in 1910s attire in preparation for the audition.  The older actor (Mammana) begins by checking to see if his younger rival has done his homework, and is surprised to find that the young man knows all about important figures of the era: Archduke Ferdinand, assassinated in 1914; Alessandro Moreschi, the last castrato; silent film star Marie Dressler; etc. Following a comparison of acting styles (Delsart vs. Stanislavsky), the older man launches into a history lesson of public toilets and zippered flies, and this gives him an idea.  He challenges his rival to an improvisation contest, with only the winner getting to stay and audition.

The older actor will portray reporter W.H. Warren and the younger B.C. Brown, and together they will reenact the police entrapment scheme from its very inception, each assuming various characters along the way.

Can you say “acting tour de force?”

If ever a playwright has come up with a performance challenge for two actors, then Jacobson is that man. Over the course of The Twentieth Century Way’s non-stop 95-minute running time, Mammana and Bradley transform themselves into a dozen and a half actual historical figures in the “anti-vice” campaign. Mammana/Warren portrays McClatchy (owner of The Sacramento Bee), Herbert Lowe (Long Beach nursery owner), Rollins (police informant), Cervantes (police officer), Ong (Long Beach deputy district attorney), Mrs. Chas B. M’Hugh (L.A. Times reader), and Lamm (the character Warren pretends to be when on assignment). Bradley/Brown steps into the shoes of Cole (Long Beach Chief Of Police), Fisher (reporter for The Sacramento Bee), Lamb (Rollins’ former liaison), Albert (party host), Swaffield (Lowe’s attorney), and Jesús (the character Brown pretends to be when on assignment).  In a particularly stunning display of acting prowess, Bradley also plays in rapid succession five different guests at an all-male party which Warren has crashed.

Not only do Mammana and Bradley assume all these characters, aided in their transformations only by the addition of a hat or a jacket or a kimono. They also move back and forth from one role to another in the blink of an eye.

What exactly Jacobson is getting at in this sexually charged cat-and-mouse game between between the two rival auditioners is something I’ll leave to sharper minds to expound on, and I’d be hard-pressed to explain the play’s final scene, which features both actors in extended full-frontal nudity. No matter. The Twentieth Century Way brings gay history to life, is ceaselessly fascinating in execution, proves to be a complex, multilevel puzzle, and as for the last scene, well it is sure to be a major ticket draw. If ever there was a play that deserves repeat visits, The Twentieth Century is that play, and that would be true even without the bare privates.   

It helps immensely that the Boston Court production has been directed by Michael Michetti, one of the jewels in the L.A. theater community crown. Michetti has yet to direct a production that wasn’t a display of prodigious creativity, and The Twentieth Century Way is no exception.

Under Michetti’s guidance, Bradley’s and Mammana’s work is, in a word, dazzling, though one would hardly expect less from these bona fide triple/quadruple threats. 

L.A. newcomer Bradley comes fresh from his singing/dancing/acting roles in David Lee’s brilliant revisal of Camelot.  Jacobson’s script calls for a “pretty” actor to play Brown, and Bradley is indeed that, but the variety of roles he brings to life require lightning-fast changes of accents, voices, and body language, and portrayals that go far beyond the physical, all of which the young actor delivers in spade.

Mammana, an acclaimed director in his own right, here places himself in Michetti’s inspired hands, and if the number of roles he tackles is slightly less than Bradley’s, he is no less extraordinary.  Ruggedly handsome (per the script’s description) and effortlessly masculine, Mammana disappears completely into Lowe’s delicate demeanor, and those of all the rest.

The demands of Jacobson’s script require a pair of actors wholly at ease with each other, and willing to go wherever their roles in The Twentieth Century, and Michetti’s directorial suggestions, lead them. Here two, Bradley and Mammana score home runs.

The Twentieth Century Way succeeds without the scenic, lighting, and sound pyrotechnics that the state-of-the-art theater can deliver (as in the recent Oedipus El Rey). Still, kudos are most definitely in order for the production’s design team: Nick Santiago (scenic and props), Elizabeth Harper (lighting), Garry Lennon (costumes), and Kari Rae Seekins (sound). Ditto Tracy Winters’ (dialect coach), Amber Koehler (production stage manager), and Sabina Ptasznik (assistant director).

Oedipus El Rey was touted as the best reviewed production in Theatre @ Boston Court history.   I venture to guess that The Twentieth Century Way will not lag far behind.  Challenging and “experimental” in a way that in lesser hands could go grievously wrong, this Jacobson/Michetti/Bradley/Mammana collaboration is an all-around artistic smash.  For this and other reasons, I predict sold-out houses throughout the run.  History lesson, acting tour-de-force, brain-teaser, and writing/directorial triumph, The Twentieth Century Way is all this … and more.

Theatre @ Boston Court, 70 N. Mentor Ave., Pasadena.

–Steven Stanley
May 9, 2010
                                                                                             Photos: Ed Krieger, Boston Court

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