Is it possible to dust off a play which has been stored away for nearly 70 years and make it contemporary for the modern audience? Director Rick Sparks took a gamble on this screwball comedy, originally played by John Barrymore and a very young Carole Lombard on film, and placed enough ingenuity and strategically placed guffaws to this dynamic classic.


The acerbic lines are so quickly spoken that a mere blink of the eye could miss it. Stay alert or something eloquently said will be missed and that would be a tragedy. Jacques from the Shakespearian classic "As You Like It" said it best: ‘All the world's a stage/And all the men and women merely players/They have their exits and their entrances…' and a lot of departures and arrivals, and door slamming, and drinking, and lying and all else occur on this endless train ride. If anything is learned from this wonderful farce is that whether you are a man or woman on a mission, who will stop at nothing until the prey is captured, the capture will never be as appealing as the hunt.

The cast, left to right, Narvais Darson,Joe Stezar, Henry Olek, Scott Asti, Shelley Kurtz, Alison Blanchard, Susan Priver and Chris Devlin experiencing one of those typical zany moments. Photo by Ed Krieger


Oscar Jaffe (Henry Olek) is an overly dramatic, constantly irate producer who is on his way of becoming a joke in the theater community. His last three productions did a swan dive in the toilet and he is in desperate need of a hit or his career will definitely be over.

His only hope is to convince former protégé and lover Lily Garland (Susan Priver), who coincidentally boards the same train, in signing a contract to a show Jaffe will produce. True to his manipulative persona, there is no show. You see, Jaffe needs a name for his life saving show or the banks will happily foreclose on his theater. Along with his manager Ida Webb (Alison Blanchard) and Owen O'Malley (Shelly Kurtz) his press secretary who takes sips of gin when no one is looking, collaborate with Jaffe to secure Lily in the show.

Ida walking in on Oscar having another of his brillant ideas. Photo by Ed Krieger

The three cohorts travel on the Twentieth Century Limited train leaving Chicago bound for New York City.  Jaffe and Lily's tumultuous relationship began when he discovered the homely chorus girl, then Mildred Plotka, who unwittingly became Galatea to his calculating Pygmalion and molded her into an international Broadway star. Then, like many love affairs, their romance sizzled, then fizzled and just got nasty. Lily left Jaffe for Hollywood, won an Oscar for Best Actress and became the Paris Hilton of her day.

Oscar now has chance in wooing Lily back onto the stage and his bed. The only thing standing in his way, besides artistic nemesis Max Jacobs (Eric Johnson), Lily's lover turned agent George Smith (Chris Devlin) is Lily who can't stand Jaffe. While all of this chaotic mischief goes on, the regular people aboard the train have their own vivid story to tell. Passenger Anita Highland (Heather Sher) cavorts with the very much-married Dr. Grover C. Lockwood (Gregory Franklin) who just happens to have a Joan of Arc screenplay for  Jaffe. The 300-pound unbounded script falls promptly finds a home in the trash.

Lily gets in the way of Max (Eric Johnson)killing Oscar. oPhoto by Ed Krieger


Ida and Owen put the pressure on Jaffe in manifesting an idea for a play. In walks that idea as a towering six-foot long hair German actor named Beard, draped in a black cape who is part of an acting troupe which performs passion plays, the story of Jesus Christ crucifixion. The light immediately goes on in Jaffe's head as he envisions his next production to be about Christ with Lily as the misunderstood Mary Magdalene.

Meanwhile Matthew Clark (Gary Ballard) another passenger is a harmless looking fellow with coke-bottled glasses, wears a bowtie, financially backs Jaffe's newest production. From then on, anything that can go wrong does go wrong and told with such comic finesse it's impossible to tear yourself away from the madness.  Meanwhile, a religious zealot is pasting stickers with a moral message all aboard the train. The Conductor (the versatile Eric Johnson who plays Max Jacobs and Beard) and new worker Jimmy the Porter (wonderfully played by Navaris Darson) jump on the case.  Olek and Priver are beautifully paired as they over the top show biz types who don't know how to behave once the cameras stop rolling. Priver re-incarnates Gloria Swanson's memorable role as Norma Desmond in "Sunset Boulevard". Theatrical and believes the hype written about her. With Olek, the arrogance becomes too big for anyone else to enter.

Ida (Alison Blanchard), Oscar (Henry Olek)and Owen (Shelley Kurtz) watch Lily (Susan Priver) work her magic on Matthew Clark(Gary Ballard).Photo by Ed Krieger

Their dialogue is like watching and intense tennis match with definitely no love. The duo's spark energizes and revitalizes the 1934 movie originating by Barrymore and Lombard. Writer Ken Ludwig beefed up of Anita and Dr. Grover's parts, as they were minor characters in the film.

Heather Sher generates plenty feisty zing and right next to her is Oscar's right hand the ballsy manager Ida Webb, whose role was originally for a man. Blanchard is reminiscent of Rosalind Russell's role as newspaper hound Hildy Johnson in the 1940's Howard Hawks comedy "His Girl Friday", which incidentally collaborators Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur adapted from their play "The Front Page," candid and intellectually superior to her boss.

Jimmy (Navaris Darson) notices Anita (Heather Sher) got tagged by the moral police. Photo by Ed Krieger

The women were stylishly dressed from casual wear to va-voom down to their evening dresses. Costume designer Shon LeBlanc fitted Blanchard in the perfect hunter green feminine suite with full-length skirt, button down blouse and matching hat. For Priver, LeBlanc dressed the femme fatale in a long, backless chartreuse sequined dress looking every inch the diva. The men were beautifully dressed in classic 1930s three-piece fitted perfectly cut suits also with the obligatory hat. Those were the great styling days. It's a battle of the sexes fused with cutting wordplay, timeless jokes guaranteed for a fun and lively evening.


Twentieth Century plays at The Lillian Theatre, 1076 Lillian Way, Hollywood. Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights at 8 p.m. until Saturday, August 18.  For tickets call (323) 960-4441 or reserve online at www.plays411.com/twentiethcentury.

 


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