‘Twentieth Century’ at The Little Theatre of Alexandria by Francine Schwartz

The Little Theatre of Alexandria presents a fast-moving production of Twentieth Century by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, and adapted by DC’s own Ken Ludwig (Lend Me a Tenor). It’s a screwball comedy set in 1933 on the Twentieth Century Limited, a train from Chicago to NYC. The Art Deco 20th Century Limited was an express passenger train operated by the New York Central Railroad. It would become known as a ‘National Institution’ and the ‘Most Famous Train in the World,’ and was showpiece of the new material – aluminum – as well as a pinnacle of style, speed, and gracious living. One can see that vaudeville was not a distant memory when this show was conceived.

 Heather Norcross (Anita Highland), Michael Gerwin (Dr. Grover Lockwood), and Ben Norcross (Porter). Photo by  Doug Olmsted.
Heather Norcross (Anita Highland), Michael Gerwin (Dr. Grover Lockwood), and Ben Norcross (Porter). Photo by Doug Olmsted.

Twentieth Century is about seeing to what lengths the flamboyant, egotistical theater producer-director Oscar Jaffe (the manic and campy David James) will go to get his ex-lover and early protege, now the glamorous self-absorbed and very annoyed Lily Garland (the vampy Margaret Bush), to sign a contract to appear in his next play – still to be determined. He pontificates, lies, cheats, and even pretends to be dying. He tries the nostalgia approach. He adopts a new religion. He rolls on the floor and races from cabin to cabin to communicate the urgency of the situation, and makes things worse. Although the role is said to be modeled from several directors living at the time, because of this caricature we are never encouraged to pity his apparently inevitable fall from the heights of Broadway success.

Trying to help out and adding to the craziness are long time assistants Ida Web (an assetive Kathy Fanon) and Owen O’Malley (a nebishy James McDaniel).who seem to have all the good sense he lacks. Other hilarious characters include George Smith (the stunning Timothy Rowe), Lily’s ‘manager,’ and Max (another ex-lover and producer, played by funny Bob Cohen, who also plays a detective), and a religious fanatic (Gary Cramer)  who has escaped from an institution and amuses himself by placing REPENT stickers all over the train and on some select derrieres as he tiptoes around the train. Cramer must have had a few energy drinks before the performance because he is required to bounce around the stage. Cramer’s energy level never subsided during the entire performance!

A distraction is caused by Dr. Grover Lockwood (Michael Gerwin), a philandering doctor who is having a Pullman car tryst with a married woman named Anita Highland, played by convincing Heather Norcross, all the while attempting to peddle his own play to Jaffe about Joan of Arc. Jaffe hasn’t yet recovered from his most recent debacle…about the sweltering Joan, and has now decided that a play about Mary Magdeline is going to be an easier sell to investors despite his total ignorance of the story.This decision follows a backup plan to stage Wagner’s Götterdämmerung with massive numbers of circus animals. And I’m not ‘lion’!

Other roles are filled admirably by experienced actors Cal Whitehurst (Conductor), Paul Tamney (Beard/Reporter), and Paul Norcross (Porter).

John Dowling and Bill Glikbarg’s set design is simply gorgeous and elegant, with a series of Pullman car interiors that move back and forth across the stage, giving a credible impression of forward movement. Large numbers of costumed actors were loaded onto the “train” through the audience, mimicking boarding and they are seen through the train windows, being joyous and rambunctious, even waiving at the audience in the first several minutes of the play.

Kathy Fannon (Ida Webb), David James (Oscar Jaffe), Margaret Bush (Lily Garland), and James McDaniel (Owen O’Malley). Photo by Doug Olmsted.
Kathy Fannon (Ida Webb), David James (Oscar Jaffe), Margaret Bush (Lily Garland), and James McDaniel (Owen O’Malley). Photo by Doug Olmsted.

Each ‘extra’ is costumed by Jean Schlichling and Kit Sibley as travelers dressed during that era, complete with hats. (Apparently in the original play more of those characters were actually introduced through subplots, but in this version, the stories have been edited to focus on an ensemble trying to get their business done before the train reaches its destination).

Director Roland Branford Gomes has assembled a great and hard-working cast and he deserves credit for orchestrating the rapid-fire dialogue and non-stop movements from coach to coach. Stage Managers Charles Bragonette and Rebecca Patton’s fine work help Gomes keep this production on the right track.

Running Time: 90 minutes, with one intermission.


Twentieth Century plays through June 29th, 2013 at The Little Theatre of Alexandria – 600 Wolfe Street, in Alexandria, VA. For tickets, call the box office at 703-683-0496, or purchase them online.


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