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Important Hats of the Twentieth Century

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

John Behlmann and Carson Elrod
Photo by Joan Marcus

Fear not, terminally unstylish: You don't need to know the difference between a trilby and a homburg to have a good time at Nick Jones's new play at City Center Stage II for Manhattan Theatre Club, Important Hats of the Twentieth Century. In fact (spoiler!), head wear does not factor into the plot in any intellectually or emotionally challenging way whatsoever—as long as your eyes work well enough to surmise that metal beanies look absurd and you're capable of positing that a hat weighing 200 pounds might be too heavy for an ordinary person to actually, you know, wear, you'll have all the millinery knowledge you need to survive Jones's ridiculous romp. (The very real fear of busting a gut from laughing is a different matter, and your own problem. Sorry.)

Jones, an Orange Is the New Black writer whose stage work includes Verité and The Coward (both for Lincoln Center's LCT3 emerging artists program), has a knack for weaving off-kilter comedies from seemingly sensible materials, a skill that suits him well here. Because, on the face of it, there's nothing so outlandish about a war of wills between two creativity-starved 1930s fashion designers. One, Sam Greevy (Carson Elrod), believes that clothing should accentuate beauty, inspire the senses, and elevate mankind (really, womankind) to its uppermost ideal; while the other, Paul Roms (Matthew Saldivar), considers it far more important that everyone be able to wear his clothes and feel comfortable rather than restrained, even if the aesthetic is pure frump-fest.

That Paul pursues his goal by, uh, donning a time-traveling hat that lets him visit 1998 and pilfering from the closet of an average urban adolescent is... okay, it's not beside the point at all. Sam's struggling to operate within the strictures of his time and training despite Paul "inventing" increasingly bizarre get-ups (the sweatshirt! the track suit! sneakers!) that capture the imagination of those still grappling with the effects of the Great Depression is where Jones gets nearly all of his story and humor. Some of the remainder comes from the attendant aspects of the narrative, such as Sam's on-the-down-low relationship with fashion reporter T.B. Doyle (John Behlmann) or the mechanics of how the "brilliant, overweight scientist" Dr. Cromwell (Remy Auberjonois) created the hat and why it's responsible for the menacing metal orbs that have suddenly begun floating in the skies of New York City, but everything is handsomely intertwined.

Matthew Saldivar, Carson Elrod, and Reed Campbell.
Photo by Joan Marcus

Alas, that means that discussing much more of what transpires across the play's bewilderingly amusing two hours would be to do Jones a major disservice. His creativity is so total, and so many elements of his execution unexpected, that three-quarters of the entertainment rightfully exists in the moment of its discovery. I particularly loved his layering of noir and madcap meandering, a representation of his own willingness to toy with (and corrupt) form in pursuit of something bigger and more unique, something that Behlmann—tall, lanky, and possessing a smoky baritone speaking voice—emanates in every one of Doyle's comically hard-bitten lines. And that Jones is able to maintain the central conceit as long as he is proves that it's more than just a one-joke gimmick stretched to full-evening length.

Where Jones has more trouble is integrating science fiction into all this. One expects some hand-waving over time-travel cap (nicknamed Caroline), but the death orbs appear to exist primarily so that the various characters can utter the word "balls" unironically over and over again. There's an obvious War of the Worlds tie-in here (Orson Welles's landmark broadcast premiered in 1938, just after the time frame of this play), but the underlying logic (yes, I used that word, and yes, it applies) is strained and, more surprisingly, not especially satisfying. And, against the odds, Jones runs low on fuel when Caroline becomes capable of visiting years other than 1998—a development you'd think would inspire him rather than stymie him. For a playwright who is capable of getting so much mileage from the visual limitations of radio, the dress codes of police officers and detectives, and even simple pairs of jeans worn below the waist, one would think material like this would be an obvious "get." But no.

If that's a signal that Jones is occasionally stretching himself too thin, the production itself never lets on. Director Moritz von Stuelpnagel has staged everything in a frothy frenzy that keeps the action hurtling between scenes and decades unobstructed, and never oversells the script's myriad gags; he's smart enough to know they can (and will) speak for themselves. There are too many moments of unqualified success to list (a wheeled door frame is utilized so frequently and so well that it's almost a character of its own), but a butterfly's protracted investigation of a temporal invader, extended across several blissful minutes of absolute silence, is a comedic show-stopper other productions this season will have to work overtime to top. (Behlmann deserves plaudits for pulling this off so effortlessly.)

Timothy R. Mackabee's bits-and-pieces set helps von Stuelpnagel tremendously (the swirling time travel sequences are rendered with a sublime, perspective-skewing silliness), as do Jason Lyons's anything-for-a-laugh lighting. And special mention must be made of costume designer Jennifer Moeller, whose mélange of disparate styles could not better represent the conflict at the play's center (the ensemble she's devised for Saldivar in the final scenes, which combine all the fruits of his fashion filching, is drop-stitch hilarious).

The cast, too, represents a heady blend of attitudes and approaches, with the focused lunacy of Elrod's Sam contrasting so well against the stony, stalwart Behlmann and Saldivar's lumpy-lackadaisical spin on Paul. Auberjonois's stuffed-shirt and stuffed-stomach academic is a hoot, as are the various pushed-aside women who are all played with deadpan grace by Maria Elena Ramirez. But there are so many roles and raucous opportunities that everyone is a standout at one point or another: For Reed Campbell it's a bemused detective wrapped up in the crazy case, for Triney Sandoval a brain-dead displaced father from the future, and for Jon Bass the angsty teenager who just can't keep his closet stocked.

They all know that, substance-free as what they're saying and doing may be—no one cares how Sam and Paul's ideological war plays out, given that we all know anyway—having and making fun can often be its own reward. The play could be funnier still if it were even more tightly knitted, but what's the point in arguing too much? When the clothes fit and are right for the person, little else really matters. And in all the places where it counts most, Important Hats of the Twentieth Century is impeccably tailored.

Important Hats of the Twentieth Century
Through December 13
Studio at Stage II Harold and Mimi Steinberg New Play Series at New York City Center Stage II, 131 West 55th Street
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