Twentieth Century by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur. Based on a play by Charles Bruce Millholland. In a new adaptation by Ken Ludwig. Directed by Walter Bobbie. Set design by Johnn Lee Beatty. Costume design by William Ivey Long. Lighting design by Peter Kaczorowski. Sound design by ACME Sound Partners. Hair/Wig design by Paul Huntley. Cast: Alec Baldwin, Anne Heche, Tom Aldredge, Terry Beaver, Patrick Boll, Dan Butler, Stephen DeRosa, Julie Halston, Robert M. Jimenez, Kellie Overbey, Ryan Shively, Jonathan Walker, Todd Cerveris, Darian Dauchan, Bill English, Virginia Louise Smith.
All aboard! Next stop: Mediocrity!
Yes, it's time to pack your bags and prepare for one of the most unnecessary and desultory rides of the season: the Roundabout Theatre Company's production of what used to be Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur's Twentieth Century, playing at the American Airlines Theatre through June 6.
It's hard to hold Hecht and MacArthur too responsible for this lifeless production of their one-time comedy, as their work has been twisted, routed, and adapted by Ken Ludwig into flavorless unrecognizability. Ludwig has cut some characters, changed others, and removed just about everything that remotely resembled comedy. All told, this Twentieth Century is bleaker (and less entertaining) than last season's Long Day's Journey Into Night.
One can understand Ludwig's dilemma of trying to reduce the scale of the play into something that would be more producible in 2004, especially given the budget limitations under which he was doubtlessly working. Still, one can only wonder how Lincoln Center Theater might have handled this same challenge; only a couple of seasons ago, they resurrected another 1932 comedy, Dinner at Eight, with a full cast and at least some hint of the work's original value, all with no "new adaptation" in sight.
Of course, the late Gerald Gutierrez helmed that production, and his directing credentials were a bit more impressive than Walter Bobbie's, Chicago notwithstanding. Bobbie's work here is unenergetic and inconsistent with a goal of making people laugh, almost as if he considered what jokes remain obstacles to overcome rather than moments to embrace.
Working with Ludwig's lackluster adaptation or not, the success (on some level) of the production was assured when Alec Baldwin and Anne Heche signed to play the lead roles. As theatrical impresario Oscar Jaffe and his muse and one-time lover Lily Garland, their influence has already generated excellent ticket sales for the production. Financially, they deliver; dramatically, it's another story.
It's not hard to find the last two above-the-title stars as ill-equipped for their roles as Baldwin and Heche; Ashley Judd and Jason Patrick opened in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof earlier this season. But it's easier to respect Judd and Patric for attempting a difficult, modern American drama and not quite succeeding than it is to respect Baldwin and Heche for taking on roles they should be able to play in their sleep and then putting audiences to sleep with their efforts.
Granted, they have some mighty big shoes to fill. Not those of the stars of the original production (Moffat Johnston and Eugenie Leontovich, for the record), but those of John Barrymore and Carole Lombard, who made a lasting impression with their performances in the show's 1934 film. Broadway audiences of today shouldn't expect replications or even approximations of those performances, but have the right to expect basic competence and star quality, neither of which they will receive here.
As most of the play's story (set on the Twentieth Century Limited train) is driven by Oscar's desperate attempts to win Lily for his next stage venture or face total financial ruin, Baldwin's choice to depict Oscar as alternately annoyed and constipated is an odd and ineffective one. Heche has no chemistry with him and radiates no charisma of her own, thus providing no clue as to how her Lily could morph from a nobody into a Hollywood superstar. (Heche does, however, look appropriately glamorous in William Ivey Long's costumes.)
Separately, both performers read as insignificant, and together, they seem determined to top each other with new heights of exaggerated blandness. There's never an indication that these are two artists only capable of doing their best under the violent emotions the other amplifies; if the script didn't insist they had a prior relationship, there would be no reason to believe it. Baldwin and Heche's stiff central performances essentially prevent Twentieth Century from ever leaving the station.
Of the supporting cast, only Tom Aldredge as religious nut Matthew Clark makes a real comic impression, though Ryan Shively, as Lily's agent and lover, occasionally comes close. Usually reliable comedienne Julie Halston never does, and can't bring Oscar's cohort Ida Webb (Oliver Webb in the Hecht/MacArthur original) to life. Dan Butler plays her associate Owen with a moderate Irish accent but few other discernible character traits. The other supporting performers do perfunctory work at best.
At least the physical production works. The lights (by Peter Kaczorowski) and the sound design (by ACME Sound Partners) reliably help embellish the train setting so beautifully devised by John Lee Beatty's remarkable and attractive set, which consists of a series of red-carpeted cars that slide on and offstage as the story demands. Watching the set work is one of the few unadulterated joys this production provides.
One can't help but question the wisdom of having such an extravagant set - let alone an unnecessary script adaptation and two ineffectual Big Name Stars - when there aren't enough people in the cast to make the Twentieth Century look like the exciting, bustling train it's supposed to be. But, things being as they are, more people probably wouldn't have helped - the group assembled in all areas of this production have already seen to it the show runs out of steam long before it's over.