This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.
In 1914, Long Beach Police Department hired two actors named Warren and Brown as “vice specialists.” Their job was to go into private clubs and public changing rooms and arrest gay men in the act of being . . . gay.
That appalling and tantalizing little historical detail is the kernel of Tom Jacobson’s new play – “The Twentieth Century Way.” It’s currently premiering at the Boston Court Theater in Pasadena.
Jacobson’s passed this historical footnote through the prism of theater history and artistic soul searching and come up with a 90 minute theatrical workout for two wonderfully talented actors - Will Bradley & Robert Mammana.
Jacobson avoids the traps of the ‘based on a true story with really important historical resonance’ genre by making the story personal. Two actors play actors on an empty stage – and it’s amazing to watch them inhabit a ton of different roles.
The challenge with history, for the artist and the audience, is how do you find your way in? You’ve discovered this local historical gem that’s pregnant with resonance (it instantly calls up Senator Larry Craig’s airport bathroom farce of 2007, California’s Proposition 8, and the deep irony that Long Beach now has one of the largest gay populations in the country). But this isn’t just history – the playwright is also using history to question the artist’s responsibility: Do these two actors who became the tools of injustice early in the last century become traitors to their craft?
Jacobson calls up not only the history of 1914 Long Beach but also the theatrical traditions of the last century and raises the perennial actor’s questions: Does my work amount to anything? Am I really any more than the characters I play? Are actors just empty vessels and if they don’t have a character do they still exist?
Jacobson avoids the traps of the ‘based on a true story with really important historical resonance’ genre. He locates the story in the personal. His way in is through two actors playing actors, an empty stage, and the sheer amazement of watching actors inhabit many different roles imagined comedy. Jacobson calls up not only the history of 1914 Long Beach but also the theatrical traditions of the last century and raises the perennial actor’s questions: Does my work amount to anything? Am I really any more than the characters I play? Are actor’s just empty vessels and if they don’t have a character do they still exist?
But it’s tough to find the heart of this story when the structure is so ‘meta’– actors playing actors. At it’s best: it has the giddy disorientation of a hall of mirrors. The trouble is there is one too many mirror. And it keeps us from getting caught up in the play and truly caring for these two men.
The play keeps the audience at arms length, like the history itself. And that seems to be Jacobson’s point – the challenge of true intimacy in theater and . . . in life.
Despite the distance, it’s worth the trip up the 110 at rush hour to hear the skillful language of a Los Angeles playwright coaxed our of the mouths of talented actors by director Michael Michetti.
The Twentieth Century Way plays at the Boston Court through June 6th. Let me know what wonderful theater you’ve seen lately at www.kcrw.com/openingthecurtain.
I’m Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.