Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

Method Acting

May 25, 2010

Robert Mammana and Will Bradley
Photo: Ed Krieger/Boston Court 2010

The Theater @Boston Court continues its 2010 season of world premiere plays this month with the ambitious new play from Tom Jacobson, The Twentieth-Century Way. I’m a sucker for a great title and interesting subject matter and this play has both. Jacobson’s play is based on little-known real events described in Lillian Faderman and Stuart Timmons’ excellent history of gay and lesbian communities in Los Angeles, Gay L.A. Specifically, it concerns two actors who were hired by the Long Beach Police Department in 1914 to entrap gay men involved in sexual activity in public and private facilities in the city in an effort to root out vice. It’s an episode in local history fraught with multiple layers of political and social tension and has inherently dramatic potential.

Or at least one would think. Jacobson takes a rather elaborate and needlessly arch and complicated approach to the story by placing multiple layers of abstraction on top of one another in the plays events. Initially we are introduced to the two actors, Warren and Brown, who occupy the stage alone throughout the 90 minutes of The Twentieth-Century Way. Ostensibly they are meeting as part of an audition that no one else is competing for and soon they are speaking in a meta-fictional way about the roles they will assume in service of their vice work for the local police department. Soon the actors also take on the myriad of other characters, both real and imagined, involved with these events. Scenes rapidly shift and bleed into one another with the actors returning to prior material without warning or pause. This is also set against recurrent episodes of the characters talking to one another in a more omniscient position, commenting on their own roles in the events and their increasingly homoerotic relationship with each another.

Not that the real life actors in question, Will Bradley as Brown and Robert Mammana as Warren aren't imminently capable of handling the johns, police officers, and other assorted people in turn of the century Long Beach. Both are quite good with the extremely convoluted and pretentious dialog. Jacobson is hugely ambition with The Twentieth-Century Way and wants to reflect on it all - gay history and identity, acting technique, construction of the self, sexual identity politics, homoeroticism, and turn-of-the-century hygienic crusades to name just a few. All of this is done in the most arch and “meta” way. Yet with all of this cerebral gamesmanship, there is surprisingly little tension in the piece, which progressively focuses on Brown's moral misgivings about conducting undercover stings and Warren's own sexual identity issues, until everybody gets naked in the last few minutes. In the end the performers make reference to the real audience and their own real names before embracing in a long-avoided and frequently-discussed kiss.

As much as I admired the idea of The Twentieth-Century Way, I just couldn’t get around the grandiose intellectualization of the piece. Not that there isn’t insight into big issues about sexual identity and the theater, its just that there is never much going on to care about. Even the sexual tension between the two men often falls flat. It’s akin to mental masturbation, only without the masturbation part. The Twentieth-Century Way runs through June 6 at Boston Court in Pasadena. It will live on in August where it will be presented as part of the New York International Fringe Festival.

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