The Twentieth-Century Way
nytheatre.com review by Kimberly Wadsworth
August 14, 2010
In The Twentieth Century Way, actors Will Bradley and Robert Mammana give us the true story of two other actors, W.H. Warren and B.C. Brown, who were hired as undercover agents for a sting operation. Sort of.
Warren and Brown's story is indeed true. California's Long Beach Police Department conducted a campaign to eliminate "vice" in the summer of 1914, and hired Brown and Warren to linger in public restrooms and locker rooms, to entice suspected homosexual men into making an advance. If any of their targets did make an obvious pass—to the point he exposed himself—Warren or Brown would stamp him with indelible ink as "evidence" and then arrest him.
For The Twentieth Century Way, though, playwright Tom Jacobson is more interested in what may have been going on in the minds of Warren and Brown, as well as the minds of their targets. Was all of Warren and Brown's work truly "acting"? How committed were they to their "roles"? Their work let them befriend other men who weren't "acting"—how much of those relationships were "real"? The men Warren and Brown arrested were also arguably "acting" in their own lives in order to "pass" in society—how much of their lives did they feel were "real"?
The whole play is framed as an "improvisation exercise" done by the actors Warren (Mammana) and Brown (Bradley) to pass the time as they wait for a director during an audition. It's the perfect device, allowing Bradley and Mammana to shift seamlessly back and forth between playing Brown and Warren and also playing reporters, Vice Squad desk sergeants, busybody members of the public, or different "suspects." Both are wonderfully versatile; Bradley is especially nimble at moving from playing the refined and modest Brown to playing eager cub reporter Eugene Fisher (a real figure, who wrote extensively about the actual case), then to playing a series of guests at a raucous underground gay bar, then to a stern prosecuting attorney. Both actors also get to show off their comedic chops—Mammana is especially fun as Warren, giving him great bluster and brio (and a bit of winking hamminess).
But it's also a great way to underscore the blurriness between "acting" and "reality"; on occasion, Brown stops in the midst of a scene to uncertainly ask if they're still improvising, or if what they're doing is "real." That is, sometimes it's Brown asking—sometimes Bradley is asking as Eugene Fisher, and sometimes he's asking as a Scottish businessman who becomes one of Warren's first arrests. And—sometimes he's asking as Bradley, himself. The play takes an unexpected metaphysical turn at the very end, with Bradley asking Mammana to drop more than Warren and Brown's "improvisation," but since Jacobson's work has been playing with the question of "acting versus reality" all along, it's a twist that makes perfect, and thought-provoking, sense.