Will Bradley and Robert Mammana in The Twentieth-Century Way. Photo by Ed Krieger.
BOTTOM LINE: An intriguing tale of vice and entrapment (and glory holes) in 1914; if there are perhaps too many layers, the excellent performances keep it from being too confusing.
The Twentieth-Century Way begins with two actors – Warren and Brown – who meet while waiting to audition for a movie. To pass the time, Warren proposes an improvisation contest: whoever wins will stay for the audition. The subject? Rooting out vice in California by pretending to pick up/have sex with men and then arresting them on the charge of "social vagrancy" for committing acts of "oral vice" (i.e., blowjobs), a sexual act whose slang gives the play its title. (There's a brief, if slightly nauseating, exchange that explains this in more detail – in short, the rise of casual anonymous oral sex is attributed to better hygiene).
The Twentieth-Century Way is an ambitious piece; if it occasionally gets confusing, I suspect this is exactly the point that playwright Tom Jacobson wants to make. Through their improvisations, Warren and Brown play multiple characters – including two versions of themselves (actors waiting for an audition, but also actors of the same name working to entrap homosexuals), policemen, and the homosexuals who are being set up. The two men slip in and out of their various roles constantly, and at times even they are not sure which role the other person is playing. Jacobson's point is that for homosexual men in 1914, one could never be sure if the attractive man at the watering hole was really "that way", or just pretending to be for more sinister reasons. So when Brown touches Warren's leg, is he doing it "in character" (and if so, which character), or for "real"? Given that the entire play is framed as an improvisation, there are many moments of "gay chicken": who is going to break character first? And does that mean the other person actually wanted it (the kiss, the blowjob), or was he just better at improvising? Neither Warren nor Brown can ever be sure.
The trouble is, neither can the audience. And at times, this becomes frustrating. Actors Will Bradley (Brown) and Robert Mammana (Warren) do an excellent job at subtly differentiating between their various roles, and as long as you pay close attention, you should be able to keep up. But there are perhaps too many layers here, and it can get confusing. This story is based on two actual actors (W.H. Warren and B.C. Brown) who worked for the Long Beach Police Department, and I understand Jacobson's desire to do something more than simply retelling historical events. But at times, the many layers of The Twentieth-Century Way become so complex and intricate that I can see how some might lose track, and then lose interest.
That said, I applaud the ambition of this piece. This is serious drama that provides a thoughtful meditation on how, as Warren says, "everyone's acting all the time. Every job is a role. Every relationship a masquerade." It deftly questions the motives that Brown and Warren might have had for volunteering their services in this way, without making an overly simple conclusion. And rather than just being a play about homosexuality, The Twentieth-Century Way deals with male-male relationships on a broader scale: as Warren says, "Any time two men meet, it's a contest."
Director Michael Michetti does an excellent job at creating various locales with only a few furniture pieces (I especially liked how he evokes restroom stalls). And Bradley and Mammana are not just excellent on their own; they also work well together, creating palpable sexual tension for pretty much the entire play. And yes, there's nudity (this is a gay play at the Fringe – isn't full-frontal male nudity required?) But even here, one can argue that the removal of clothing is not simply gratuitous, but that it serves as a metaphor for the shedding of inhibitions, and the revealing of a more honest "self." Or else it could just be titillation and an easy way to appeal to gay audiences. As with everything else about The Twentieth-Century Way, the truth is that we will never really know for sure.
(The Twentieth-Century Way plays at the Players Theatre, 115 MacDougall Street, just south of West 3rd Street, through August 24th. Remaining performances are Monday 8/16 at 5:15pm, Wednesday 8/18 at 8:45pm, Saturday 8/21 at 12:15pm, and Tuesday 8/24 at 4:15pm. For more information visit BostonCourt.com. Tickets are $15 in advance, $18 at the door, and are available at FringeNYC.com, by calling 866.468.7619, or in person at FringeCENTRAL, located at 1 East 8th Street at 5th Avenue. There is NO LATE SEATING for Fringe NYC shows.)