Screwball comedy is in expert hands as the Sierra Madre Playhouse revives Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s Twentieth Century, tweaked by Ken Ludwig to give the 1930s piece a 21st Century sensibility while maintaining all the classic elements of screwball.

Rapid-fire repartee, mistaken identities, madcap situations, outrageous supporting characters, frequent door slamming, and slapstick—all of these are found in Twentieth Century, probably best known for its 1934 screen adaptation featuring John Barrymore and Carole Lombard.

Barrymore and Lombard starred in that Howard Hawks classic as Broadway impresario Oscar Jaffe and his former flame, Broadway star-turned-Hollywood screen goddess Lily Garland, whom down-on-his-theatrical-luck Oscar needs back in the Big Apple to give his next production the hit status his most recent flops have lacked.

The play’s title refers to the luxurious Twentieth Century Limited, the Chicago-to-New York train on which the entire action takes place, artfully rendered on the Sierra Madre Playhouse proscenium stage in classic art deco style by scenic designer Adam Smith.

Before the introduction of our two stars, however, assorted supporting passengers board the Twentieth Century—a mother and child (Jill Maglione and Zoe Hanket), illicit lovers Dr. Grover Lockwood and Anita Highland (Barry Saltzman and Dorothy Brooks), and self-proclaimed laxative heiress Myrtle Clark (Beth Leckbee), in reality a mental hospital escapee with a religious bent.

Oscar Jaffe (Arthur Hanket) himself soon gets on board, accompanied by loyal assistants Ida Webb (Kimberly Lewis) and Owen McNally (Alan Brooks), who have booted adulterers Grover and Anita from their berth to make room for Oscar.

The next train stop allows Lily Garland (Stephanie Erb) to make a star’s entrance, her recently won Oscar statuette in hand and her agent (and current beau) George Smith (Matt Iseman) in tow.

Hecht and MacArthur’s screwball plot has Oscar, Ida, and Owen conniving to get Lily’s signature on a contract to portray none other than “The Magdalene” in the first Broadway production of a centuries-old German Passion Play, which the impresario plans to stage with real live camels, elephants, and sheep.

Will Oscar get Lily to sign on the dotted line despite protests from George, who divines correctly that the producer’s interest in Lily is more than merely professional? Will would-be playwright Grover manage to convince Oscar to produce the play he’s written about Joan Of Arc, despite the fact that a Joan Of Arc play was the producer’s most recent Broadway bomb? And how long will it take Oscar to learn that any check Myrtle might be writing to finance his next production will be as bad as a three-dollar bill?

These and other questions are asked and answered over the course of Twentieth Century’s lickety-split two acts, expertly directed at Sierra Madre by Michael Lorre, who clearly knows his screwball backwards and forwards and inside-out, keeping pacing brisk and repartee swift.

The Scenie-winning director is aided and abetted by a couldn’t-be-better cast, headed by real-life spouses Hanket and Erb, who along with their castmates nail the heightened speech and screwball flair so essential when reviving a ‘30s or ‘40s classic. Hanket’s egomaniacal Oscar has more than a bit of Barrymore in him and just the right mix of the flamboyant and the pompous. Erb is simply fabulous as the equally self-centered (but considerably more glamorous) Lily, giving the Broadway-Hollywood goddess just the right amount of tongue in cheek.

Supporting players are all-around splendid, particularly Lewis, who pays expert tribute to legendary Hollywood sidekick Eve Arden in her sassy, fast-talking turn as Ida. Saltzman and Brooks are a hoot as oft-thwarted illicit lovers, Brooks and Iseman are just right as Lily and Oscar’s entourage, and a droll Leckbee gives mousy Myrtle a voice which somehow blends Marilyn Monroe and Madge Blake. Completing the cast in crackerjack fashion are Doug Gabrielle (Conductor), Grant Baciocco (Nurse, Max Jacobs), Maglione, Hanket and Erb’s daughter Zoe, and Matt Bolte, terrific in the dual roles of efficient train porter and bearded German, the latter bent on playing “Der Cristus” in Oscar’s next Broadway show.

Lighting designer Sammy Ross (PRG) expertly lights Smith’s set and a bevy of pitch-perfect 1930s fashions designed by Shon LeBlanc (The Costume House), while Lorre’s sound design features some just-right train effects. Kevin Remington scores high marks for his period wigs as does Anne Marie Atwan for props. Kim Kurzinger is stage manager.

A couple of small gripes. The Twentieth Century program misleadingly places asterisks after the names of all 4-A Union members—Actors’ Equity, SAG, AFTRA, and AGVA—rather than Equity members only as specified in the Los Angeles 99-Seat Theatre Plan, giving the mistaken impression that two-thirds of the cast are Equity. Also, though Twentieth Century is an ensemble piece, it is a star vehicle as well, and a group curtain call denies Hanket, Erb, and Lewis (and others in smaller roles) the individual bows they deserve (and Oscar and Lily would surely demand).

Twentieth Century gives the venerable Sierra Madre Playhouse one of its best productions ever, and if you’ve never visited the picturesque “Small Town USA” city of Sierra Madre, you’re in for a double treat. Plan on arriving early for a stroll around town and a pre-show coffee or meal. You’ll be glad you made the trip.

Sierra Madre Playhouse, 87 W. Sierra Madre Blvd., Sierra Madre.

–Steven Stanley
February 5, 2012
Photos: Lia Peterson

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